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I recently discovered a kink in my brain. (Don’t worry, it’s not the sexy kind.) I’ve been into tabletop war games and miniature skirmish games for as long as I’ve known that they were a thing. Some of my earliest exposure to fantasy came, not through Lord of the Rings or Dungeons & Dragons, but diluted from them through Warhammer.

I’ve talked before about growing up poor, though, and when I was young I didn’t have the funds to really support a miniature gaming hobby (not that I didn’t try), so mostly I pored over source books and issues of White Dwarf, constructed army lists of miniatures I would never own, and dreamed.

I loved the models with their intricate paint jobs and I loved the dollhouse terrain. When I managed to scrape up the funds to acquire a model or two, I would try to paint them, because that’s what you were supposed to do. And, in the process, I would inevitably ruin them, because I hadn’t yet learned how to paint. That’s just part of the hobby, I gather, a stage everyone goes through.

Except that I never went through it. I hated painting, and because I hated it, I never practiced enough to learn the skillset needed to get better. For years, this, almost as much as a lack of adequate funds, curtailed my involvement in a hobby that I loved. Painting was so much a part of the field that if I was unwilling to do it, I was always going to be an outsider looking in, or so I thought.

Then I discovered that aforementioned kink in my brain. I was lucky enough to have a talented friend who actually enjoys painting minis and who was generous enough to paint my Hordes gatorman army for me – and they looked amazing. I was so happy. But it’s a laborious and time-consuming process, and he had his own models to paint, after all.

Then I got the Hellboy board game when it Kickstarted a few years back, and it came with just boatloads of minis. He and I were joking about him having to paint them all, and something clicked – while my brain instinctively told me that wargaming miniatures were supposed to be painted, it (equally instinctively) said that board game minis didn’t need to be.

This didn’t get a ton more interrogation until COVID struck and I began getting hardcore into dungeon crawl board games that I had denied myself previously. From there, it was a short and inevitable path to collecting some of the modern equivalents of those Warhammer miniatures I had spent so many hours daydreaming about as a youth.

And that’s where the click came. If the board game minis were allowed to sit in their boxes and drawers unpainted; if they still made me happy, just having them and pushing them around on tabletops and dungeon tiles, then why not the others, as well?

I found a sort of calm in assembling the push-fit models that came with Warhammer Underworlds and, from there, learned how to appreciate the act of gluing the more complicated kits together, even when that inevitably left me with glue all over my fingers.

But I still didn’t want to paint. And I didn’t have to. Nor did I have to push the obligation over onto Jay. In fact, there was no obligation. If the minis made me happy unpainted, then unpainted they could stay. I wasn’t somehow unworthy of them because I was fundamentally uninterested in an aspect of the hobby so central to the enjoyment of so many.

Lest I be misunderstood, this is not a rallying cry for the end of painting. For many – even most – of the people invested in the hobby, painting is a big part of the joy that it brings, as is fielding painted armies. And I love painted models. I love to see the work and care and personality that others have put into what is a genuine artform.

My good friend and sometime publisher Simon Berman runs the Brush Wielders Union, “a community of like-minded miniatures gamers dedicated to playing their games fully painted and supporting one another in their craft.” And that dedication and support are important and commendable and I love them for it.

Maybe someday, I’ll even discover that the bug has bitten me, and I will turn my attempts once more toward the brush and pigments. But if I never do, then I am not prohibited from the other joys that I derive from the hobby, and I can still bask in all my little idiot monsters and soldiers in their gray, plastic glory.

It’s hard to believe that it’s August 2nd already, as I write this. The pandemic – and with it the rest of the garbage fire that is 2020 – has been … having an effect on my overall life and output, to be sure, and rarely an altogether positive one. (When I told my therapist – via a Zoom call, of course – that I had spent a few days freaking out the prior week, she was like, “Only a few days?! Bravo!”)

As someone who already worked from home, I am far from the hardest hit by this slow-motion apocalypse, but it’s also impossible to be an even remotely empathetic human being and not feel the miasma of strain that currently grips the world.

I am proud and envious of the folks who have turned this time toward productive ends by writing their novel, carving through their to-be-read pile, or even just watching a lot more movies; even while my own TBR pile gathers an ever-deepening layer of dust and the very notion of putting words on the page carries a kind of low-key existential dread.

To my own surprise, I haven’t even watched that many movies during the lockdown. In fact, June was the lightest month since I started keeping score several years ago, with only ten movies watched. Part of that can be chalked up to the (hopefully temporary) death of movie theaters and breakdowns in the supply chain for new review titles, but a part of it is just how I’m coping with [gestures at everything].

July picked up a bit, thanks, in no small part, to Arrow Video’s Shinya Tsukamoto collection, my review of which should be dropping any day now. At ten movies all by itself, it basically guaranteed that I was going to at least eclipse June’s paltry sum.

I’ve still been writing, of course, just not a lot of fiction. My last post was partly about my new gaming column for Unwinnable, and I also wrote about getting into Dungeons & Dragons during the plague times for our local dirtbag/cool kid newspaper The Pitch. (Observant readers may recognize a thinly-veiled version of The Pitch as The Current in my story “The Red Church.”)

This is probably my first byline in an actual print newspaper since college. Like most writers my age, I entertained some fantasies about one day being a journalist, mostly when I was in high school and later a bit in college. Even by the time I was in college, though, the future of print newspapers was already pretty close to utter collapse, so I kinda wrote off the notion of that ever coming to pass. Every once in a while, we get a nice surprise, instead of just a box full of the plague.

As you may be able to gather from that, I’ve been spending a lot of the pandemic getting really into games that I mostly can’t play right now. In addition to D&D, I finally took the plunge on Descent: Journeys in the Dark, a game I’ve been wanting to try for years, just in time for it to probably go out of print, it looks like? (Speaking of, if anyone happens to have the Stewards of the Secret expansion for it, I would love to take that off your hands.)

So far, for a game that I basically haven’t played, I’ve really been enjoying my time looking at and thinking about playing Descent, anyway. I guess there are worse ways of coping…

I recently got super into 5e D&D. Because, if I’m going to get really into a socially-focused role playing game, I’m going to pick the middle of a pandemic, when I can’t be around other people, to do it. (And no, I haven’t yet tried Roll20 or its ilk, though I’m sure it’s on the horizon at this point.)

I have played, to some greater or lesser extent, every version of D&D since at least 2nd edition, but that doesn’t mean I liked most of them. I think 3.5 is probably the one I played the most, and I hated it, which is why I never got into Pathfinder, in spite of all the fun art by Wayne Reynolds that graces their covers, which have always had the energy that I feel like a D&D encounter needs.

(Please note, I don’t mean to diss 3.5 or Pathfinder. I know a lot of people love them. 3.5 was just very much not my particular cup of tea.)

In some ways, I picked a good time. I’m here just in time for Wizards of the Coast (the folks who make D&D) to finally catch up with how I (and every other GM I’ve ever played with) have always run games since forever, by getting rid of “evil” races, among other changes.

Here’s the thing that plenty of people who have thought and read and written way more about this topic than me have already talked about at great length: D&D has some problems that are baked into it from its very core.

Those of us who play the game and aren’t horrid bigots tend to ignore them or create homebrew workarounds or just not play the game that way, but the core ideas of D&D are based in colonialism and the “othering” of different peoples, and it’s hard to unring that bell. But it’s good that they’re trying.

Something I’ve seen Pathfinder doing in recent editions is to refer to player character options as “ancestries” rather than “races,” which I like. The word “race” is so fraught, and it’s so easy for things to fall into gross stereotypes in games like this anyway, that the way “race” has been deployed in D&D to, say, give bonuses or penalties to certain traits like Intelligence, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. And that’s not even getting into the idea of having whole races that are “evil.”

Word is that D&D is looking to make some changes to how they do ability score increases at character creation, which is probably not the worst idea. But it’s really a band-aid on the bigger problem of how ideas of “race” are often used in this kind of fantasy world-building, and have been since Tolkien, at least.

I’m not predominantly a fantasy writer, and though I’ve worked in tabletop gaming a bit, I’m far from an expert in the field. As I said before, lots of people much smarter than me have written extensively about this, and I recommend that you go read some of them, if you’re interested.

None of this is meant to denigrate D&D, a game that I’ve been trying to love for most of my life, and finally managed with 5e, its best incarnation yet. The way I ultimately got into 5e is actually kind of a funny story…

I was approached about doing some work for a possible product that would use 5e’s system (via the Open Gaming License), but I had, at that time, basically never played 5e. So I started doing some research, and found that I really enjoyed the new system.

(Whether that side project will ever come to pass or not it’s too early days to tell, and COVID-19 has disrupted, y’know, everything.)

As I was digging into the system and setting, the protests around the murder of George Floyd were happening all over the country, and so it felt like high time that the makers of D&D finally stepped up to try to address some of the colonialism and baked-in racism of the game.

None of this is really going anywhere. I’m just writing to say that, hey, I finally found a version of D&D I like, and that I’m glad to see probably the world’s biggest tabletop gaming platform at least trying to address some problems that have needed addressing for a long time now.

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…

 

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.

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.