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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.

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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.