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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)

 

There is a gag in the MST of Hobgoblins where, after the film’s cold opening, the titles come up and Tom Servo goes, “Hey, the end credits! Well, it was a terrible movie, but at least it was short.” To which Mike replies, “These are the beginning credits,” and Servo says, “Oh, well, then kill me, please?”

Remember that, cuz we’ll come back to it.

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I don’t know if the turning of the new year is really a time when people make ill-fated resolutions to improve their lives, or if that was just a gimmick cooked up to sell gym memberships. But I do know that this time in the dead of winter – from Christmas Eve until … well, it varies, year to year, but sometimes the end of February – has routinely not been a great time of year for me.

Unfortunately, so far 2020 is no exception. In fact this whole first week (!) feels like every day has been about a year long by itself. Each time I realize that we’re only a week in, it feels like that gag from Hobgoblins that I mentioned above.

Years ago, Grace and I had to let go of our first cat, Corwin, in a fairly sudden and traumatic fashion on Christmas Eve. Yesterday, we had to say goodbye to our cat Abracadabra, or Abby, who we’ve had for twelve years – nearly a third of my life.

It was time, and I’m grateful that she’s no longer suffering, but it was terribly hard to say goodbye, and we already miss her so much. That was the year’s biggest kick in the teeth to me, personally, so far, but it was far from the only one.

Meanwhile, I’ve still got this hacking cough that I have had since October 30, the world is on fire in a way that’s more literal than usual, America’s warmongering and imperialism threatens to escalate a war that has, for all intents and purposes, been going on for most of my lifetime, and I’m sure there’s plenty that I’m forgetting.

I don’t know if all ages are as apocalypse-haunted as my generation, but it seems like I’ve grown up always in the shadow of the end of the world. I was a kid in the tail-end of the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed large. The Day After was set and filmed not far from where I live now.

Our movies were preoccupied with life in the wake of a future that was sometimes literally post-apocalyptic, other times caught in the midst of the inevitable aftermath of late stage capitalism and its ravages on the planet. A world in which a handful of people lived in comfort while everyone else survived in the gutters, when they survived at all.

I graduated class of 2000, which means that I remember, vividly, the Y2K scare. I remember the fear of global pandemics. Outbreak came out when I was fourteen years old.

Revisiting the movies that I grew up on, I’m often flabbergasted by how quickly they expected the end to come. When you’re making a movie about a blasted future where humanity survives in dregs, and you set it a decade out? Let’s just say, that ain’t optimism.

I’m no kind of historian, but I do routinely consume media, both for work and pleasure, from a lot of different decades. And one thing I’ve learned is that the problems that we face now are, for the most part, the same as the problems we’ve faced all my life. Take a movie from two, three decades ago, strip away the markers of its moment in time, and you’ll find the same themes.

We knew that climate change was going to doom us all if we didn’t do something about it. We knew that the wealth gap was growing. We knew that our warmongering would only ever lead to more and more violence. We knew the self-serving hypocrisy of the “moral majority.” We knew that white supremacy underpinned much of our society – and that it was a trap that held both whites and PoC alike.

Sometimes it’s comforting to see how little has changed, and sometimes it’s terrifying.

Knowing that the fin absolue du monde has hung over us for longer than I’ve been alive helps me to not give in to the apocalyptic mindset that the news often seems so keen to engender, but I can’t deny that the images of Australia, in particular, have an immediacy and ferocity that is hard to ignore.

On the plus side, I made my first sale of the year this week, which is a nice, early start. 2020 may have punched us in the mouth right out of the gate, but sometimes the only thing you can do then is grin with blood in your teeth.

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.

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.

 

This isn’t going to be a review of Midsommar, which I watched last night, but instead a discussion of one aspect of it. I don’t think it’ll really have anything in it that qualifies as spoilers, but on the off chance, y’know, watch out.

I didn’t love Midsommar and I didn’t hate it. I don’t think I liked it as much as Hereditary, and I don’t think it brought much that was terribly new to the folk horror table, besides a real meticulousness. But again, I said this wasn’t a review, and I don’t mean for it to be.

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The main character in Midsommar (played brilliantly by Florence Pugh) has an anxiety disorder. She has it before the traumatic events which propel her onto the ill-fated trip that makes up the meat of the movie. Probably she has always had it. Just like me.

And more so than maybe any other movie I’ve ever seen, Midsommar, in its first half-hour or so, nails what it feels like to have an anxiety disorder, at least for me.

When I got home from the theatre, I called its first 20 or 30 minutes “basically the tunnel-visioning run-up to a panic attack put on film.” I guess it would be easy to read that as “it’s scary,” but, while Midsommar is many things, it is emphatically not particularly scary.

“It’s definitely a horror movie,” one of the people I saw it with said afterward. “But it’s not a scary movie.” I’d be inclined to agree.

And yet, I took half an alprazolam about the time they got on the plane. This before the “horror” part of the movie had really kicked in.

Normally, movies don’t trigger my anxiety. Ever. At all.

My therapist used to find it ironic that I had a significant anxiety disorder and suffered from frequent panic attacks but that I also watched horror movies practically for a living. But movies–pretty much no matter how tense or shocking or disturbing–have always been my safe place. Horror movies especially.

And I didn’t pop an alprazolam because Midsommar was scary or shocking or tense. I took one because the film felt so much like the run-up to a panic attack that I could feel one of my own just starting to flutter its wings somewhere deep down in my ribcage, in the dark space behind my own eyes, tingling at the tips of my fingers.

Anxiety as a disorder–rather than simply a natural reaction that people have to traumatic or frightening situations–isn’t something that movies get right very often. Whatever your thoughts on Ari Aster’s approach to mental illness in his films so far (and I think there are a LOT of thoughts to have on the subject), this depiction of anxiety felt right to me.

(The scene of her stalking around, arms rigid, fists clenched at her sides to keep from scratching at herself, telling herself over and over again to, “Stop it. Stop it.” I have literally done that exact thing more times than I can count.)

So, if you don’t suffer from anxiety, or do and it takes a different form, and you want an idea of what it feels like to be me–sometimes more than others, of course, but never gone completely–watch the first part of Midsommar, everything up to the scene where Dani wakes up after they take the mushrooms. That’ll give you a taste.

This has been a rough year in the Grey demesne. We started 2018 on a raft of health problems that we rode well into the middle of the year. And even once they were (mostly) resolved–honestly, do health problems ever really get completely resolved?–we spent the rest of the year paying for them. I lost a big paying client. And in spite of my best efforts we still haven’t tunneled into the timeline where Howard the Duck is president.

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On the plus side, though we stand on the cusp of 2019 bruised, battered, and low on health potions, the teeth of the universe haven’t yet torn the charge from our atoms. I ran a game of Iron Kingdoms in 2018, and we just completed out last session. Two of the characters were incapacitated, and one of the two who remained standing was holding on by the narrowest thread. That’s kinda how it feels like we’re going into 2019.

Which is not to say that the year wasn’t full of good things, too. I went to Panic Fest and the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, which meant that I got to visit the Winchester Mystery House for the first time. I watched a lot of movies and made some new friends. I found a weird board game in the trash and took a picture of In the Mouth of Madness that I had always wanted to take. I became the Monster Ambassador at Signal Horizon and published stories in seven different venues, including my second appearance in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. I had a whole book come out!

Of all the things I’m proud of in 2018, however, I think I’m most proud of the small things I did that were steps outside my comfort zone. I carved jack-o-lanterns at Halloween, made a necklace that I love, and made divinity, an overly sugary candy concoction that I remember fondly from my childhood. I didn’t do any of those things entirely by myself. Grace helped me with all of them, sometimes overtly, as with the divinity, and sometimes just by giving me the confidence I needed to try something that I might not be good at right away.

I watched 269 movies in 2018, 163 of which were new to me, keeping with my goal of watching more new-to-me movies than not each year. Of those, roughly 35 were released in 2018. My biggest months were October with 39 movies and, thanks to a couple of marathon days, December with 33. My favorite movies that were released in 2018 were, in no particular order, ErrementariLowlifeTigers Are Not AfraidAvengers: Infinity WarBlack Panther, and Apostle. There were a lot of movies I really wanted to check out that I haven’t gotten a chance to watch yet. The last movie I watched in 2018 was The Boxer’s Omen (1983), which was a good way to close out this weird and crappy year.

I didn’t read very many books in 2018, but of those I did read my favorite was probably Caleb Wilson’s Polymer, which I recommend very highly. The first book I read in 2018 was Kaibyo: The Supernatural Cats of Japan and the last was Matthew M. Bartlett’s Of Doomful Portent.

There’s probably a lot that I’m forgetting as I pen this end-of-the-year wrap-up, but honestly I’m just in a hurry to show this garbage year the door. Don’t let it hit you in the ass on your way out, 2018!

 

 

Putting this here because I’m going to get asked more than once, and I need a place to point people back to for the next four months or so. The trailer for the new Hellboy movie just dropped and, yeah, it’s scored to “Mony Mony,” which, as I said on social media, is certainly a decision, anyway.

If you want my take, I think that the trailer is the wrong tone to start off with, but there’s also nothing in it that guarantees a misfire in theatres. I do like that most of the stuff we can only see for a few seconds is straight out of the comics but, beyond that, we’ll just have to wait and see.

But I’m not here to talk about the trailer, not really. What I’m here to talk about is the existence of this movie at all. As someone who is at least on speaking terms with some of the principals involved, I can tell you with as much certainty as one can ever muster about a Hollywood deal to which one was not directly privy that there was never going to be a third Guillermo del Toro Hellboy movie, regardless of anything he might have said. If there was, the day when it was possible was in the months following the release of Hellboy 2, and that day is long behind us now.

And, speaking from my own personal perspective, there never should have been. Hellboy 2 has many fine qualities, to be sure, but it fails as a sequel to the first film and even more as a Hellboy movie.

Guillermo del Toro’s first film was the best Hellboy movie that we could have gotten at the time, given the realities of comic book adaptations in 2004. In fact, I would argue that it played a big (and largely unsung) role in getting us from there to here. But things have changed a lot in the last decade, both in the movies and in the comics, and a Hellboy adaptation made now has the opportunity to cleave closer to the source material than Del Toro’s version ever could have.

Will this movie be the one to do it? Only time (and definitely not a brief teaser trailer) will truly tell.