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No one knows where he comes from or where he’ll show up next, but apparently he’s been around for a long time and is to blame for all manner of trouble and problems.   Attempts to capture or kill him have been unsuccessful, so he remains on the loose and citizens are cautioned about approaching him or attempting to engage him in conversation. 
– “Skeleton Key No. 28: Death,” by Richard Sala

I don’t know how to put this into words in a way that won’t sound more heartless than I mean it to sound, but: it’s one thing to lose someone whose work meant a lot to you, but who hadn’t been doing much work for a while.

Just yesterday, I posted a sort of reminiscence about the passing of Ray Harryhausen. It hit me hard when it happened, but he was also 92 years old, and he hadn’t done work that I had seen in a long time. That doesn’t make it any less tragic that he died; but it made the news less immediate for me.

I can’t say the same for Richard Sala. It would be stretching the word to say that he and I were actual friends, but it would be even more disingenuous to say that he was merely a hero of mine, an inspiration.

Certainly, he started out that way, but thanks to the magic of social media, I actually got to know him a little bit. He would sometimes comment on my posts; I would sometimes comment on his. We usually talked old, weird movies, because he frequently turned me on to titles that I otherwise might have missed.

(Flip through Monsters from the Vault or Revenge of Monsters from the Vault and you’ll see his name more than once.)

This evening, I saw via the Fantagraphics Twitter account that he had passed away at the age of 61. For one thing, 61 is a lot younger than, say, 92. For another, Richard was working right up until the last. His latest book (an art book that you should really buy) came out just last year, and he was posting about his process on the next book as recently as last week.

On top of that, we were, as I said, something approximating friends – at least more-than-casual acquaintances. He was someone I turned to for his enthusiasm about old movies, especially, and as much as I’ll always remember him for his art and writing, I’ll also remember him because there are movies I would never have seen without his recommendation. Those movies will always be his, to me.

He was someone I hoped to work with someday. Someone whose work was so near-and-dear to my heart – and so close to my own aesthetics and obsessions – that I dreamed it might one day decorate one of my own books. But more than that, he was a person whose own dreams and passions glowed in the dark, and provided a creepily cozy light for all us other weirdos to gather ’round.

Hopefully someday we’ll meet on the astral plane. For tonight, I’m going to go read one of his books or watch one of those movies and remember.

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“If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.”
– Ray Harryhausen

Seven years ago today, I was home from a very pleasant trip to Portland for an off-season H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival, which had ended with me hearing about the passing of Ray Harryhausen. I was watching It Came from Beneath the Sea to mark the event.

A little less than three years ago, on December 2nd, 2017, I was in Oklahoma City for an exhibit of Harryhausen’s work, thanks to lots of help and patience from my wonderful spouse and partner. I made it on literally the last day of the exhibition, and barely that, due to recovering from emergency surgery that year.

The exhibit was life changing, and not just because I came so close to not being alive to experience it. Harryhausen has always been one of my biggest inspirations and, for my money, one of the greatest monster designers to ever live. It may be weird for a writer to cite such a visual artist, but Harryhausen was a storyteller, as well as an animator, even if his name wasn’t on the director or screenplay lines.

A little under two months from now would have been Harryhausen’s 100th birthday. In a century, cinema has changed a great deal, but its debt to Harryhausen hasn’t slackened one bit – nor has the debt that my own work owes to his.

Harryhausen - SkeletonWhile my licensed novel was dedicated to him, the place where his influence is probably most obviously felt is in my story, “Baron von Werewolf Presents: Frankenstein Against the Phantom Planet,” which is available in Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales.

It’s there in less-obvious places, too, though. In the way that the monster moves at the end of The Cult of Headless Men, also available in Guignol.  In the dinosaur statues of “Prehistoric Animals,” my recent tale in the latest Weird Fiction Review.

Like so many of my inspirations, Harryhausen is also part of a thread that runs backward and forward. His own work is heavily inspired by King Kong and the engravings of Gustave Dore, and in his recent series of daily quarantine sketches, Mike Mignola drew a host of Harryhausen creatures, not to mention some other sketches that obviously owe a debt to Ray.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with any of this, save to mark Ray Harryhausen’s passing on what should have been his hundredth year on this plane. He is seven years gone now and, to the best of my knowledge, he still hasn’t gotten a tribute anthology. Maybe I need to start talking to someone about that…

 

As we all grope blindly in the dark for silver linings amid all the peeled grapes and cold spaghetti of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve seen a lot of people excited that we’re halfway around to Halloween – though I’ve seen an equal number wondering just what Halloween is going to look like this year, with a plague on and all.

In fact, we’re excited enough about the date that we did a special “halfway to Halloween” episode of the Horror Pod Class, where Tyler and I talked about the 2019 movie Haunt and he history of commercial haunted houses. It’s honestly worth it just for the bit from a pamphlet for parents organizing haunted houses back in the ’30s, which suggests, among other things, nailing raw liver to the walls.

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Whatever happens with the pox and all that, we keep Halloween alive in our hearts as much as in our celebrations, right? And we can all watch scary movies and read spooky books anytime, even when we’re in quarantine.

Speaking of which, since this is also Walpurgisnacht, I usually take this evening to talk a bit about the story I wrote of that name, which originally appeared in The Children of Old Leech and can also be found in my second collection, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts – both from Word Horde.

It’s a night for revels and devilry and old, black-and-white witchy movies like Night/Curse of the DemonCity of the Dead, or Haxan. Over on Facebook, I saw someone watching The Devil Rides Out, and that’ll also do.

* Image from a manga that I don’t know the name of, courtesy of Haunted Horror‘s Steve Banes.

And I don’t mean the weird, clunky, Kirby-like grays that show up in Hellboy, nor Mike’s take on Martian tripods from his Year of Monsters series of covers. I mean aliens as in the movie Aliens. Or, to be somewhat more accurate, the various Dark Horse comic series that spun out from the movies.

Today is Alien Day (4/26), and a few years ago about this time I posted a little about what the Alien franchise has meant to me throughout the years. Today, I’m going to be too busy to put together anything that says it better, even if I could.

27253But I’ve also talked a lot, over the years, about what Mike Mignola’s work means to me, and to see the two things dovetail is a rare treat indeed. Mike drew the Aliens: Salvation comic (written by Dave Gibbons, himself perhaps best known as the artist on Watchmen) back in 1993.

It is an amazing comic; evocative, gothic, monstrous. But Mike’s style has evolved a lot in the years since ’93, and one of the great pleasures of my life was seeing his more recent take on the same material when he drew a new cover for the story’s hardcover reissue back in 2015.

Around that time, I posted something to the effect that the way other people must feel when they see a new Star Wars movie coming out is how I feel when Mike Mignola draws Aliens.

Plenty of other artists and writers have taken swipes at the Alien mythos to great effect. Recently, I particularly enjoyed James Stokoe’s Aliens: Dead Orbit. His hyper-detailed yet still stylized art is a perfect fit for the material.

For this Alien Day, I’m too busy to watch any of the movies, so maybe I’ll read Aliens: Salvation again instead…

Dear Diary,

This is day XX of quarantine. It would be lovely to say that I don’t know how many days this has been going on because of the pandemic but, to be honest, sheltering in place is not much different than being a freelancer always is, with the exception that I can’t go to Analog Sunday and Grace is always home.

Life goes on, even under the strangest of conditions, and I figured it was high time for a check-in on what’s been happening for me in the writing arena – the stuff I can talk about, at any rate.

So far, 2020 has already seen the publication of three of my stories, which is the same number that I published in total last year, so that’s not nothing.

“The All-Night Horror Show” is live at The Dark. For those who attended last year’s Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, this was the story that I read near the end of the Symposium, before the whole spook show presentation.

My story “Prehistoric Animals” is in the latest issue of the Weird Fiction Review from Centipede Press – bonus points to anyone who can tell me what the title is borrowed from. And most recently, my all-new story that is extremely critical of American imperialism, “Manifest Destiny,” is in The Willows Anthology. Pick it up, and you’ll also get a bunch of (probably regrettable) juvenalia written by me many years ag

More stuff is coming later this year, to the extent that we can predict anything ever or especially right now. I recently finished up a story with the hard-to-beat title, “The Robot Apeman Waits for the Nightmare Blood to Stop.” I wish that I could take credit for it, but it’s a misremembered paraphrase from an essay Ray Bradbury wrote about Disneyland, of all places.

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It’s bound for a shared-world anthology (something I generally steer clear of) that’s being put together by the minds behind The Willows – an anthology that’s currently accepting submissions, if you wanna try for a shot at sharing a TOC with that imposing title.

As usual, I’ve been working on nonfiction more than fiction of late, though most of it has been freelance work. Movie reviews have necessarily dropped off a bit, due to the whole pandemic thing, but they aren’t gone completely.

My first piece for Kansas City’s local dirtbag newspaper The Pitch – savvy readers of my work may recognize a thinly-veiled version of it as The Current in “The Red Church” – recently went live, in which I reviewed Robert Altman’s jazz opus Kansas City. Meanwhile, over at Signal Horizon, I covered the Vincent Price flick The Mad Magician and the Italian Exorcist knock-off Beyond the Door.

On Twitter, I’ve also been keeping a running list of my favorite new-to-me movies that I saw for the first time this year that didn’t come out this year.

Outside of the realm of direct reviews, I wrote about the works of Thomas Ligotti and cosmic nihilism in the film Gags the Clown, which we also talked about on the latest episode of the Horror Pod Class. (For those who don’t know, I’m now the regular co-host of the Horror Pod Class, which is weekly for the duration of the pandemic, satisfying my contractual obligation to co-host a podcast as ostensibly a white dude of a certain age.)

Next week, we’ll be talking about Attack of the Crab Monsters, so stay tuned!

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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