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03william-mortensen-l-amour_900I first discovered the work of William Mortensen on Pinterest, of all places, when someone shared the image that accompanies this post, “L’Amour.” Upon seeing it, I immediately knew that I had to learn more about its history and context, and, in my seeking, I wound up learning more about the man who had created the photograph.

Called “the anti-Christ” by Ansel Adams (and we writers think that our squabbles get heated), Mortensen was a fascinating photographer who used various techniques to create captivating, often grotesque photographic effects that frequently look as much like paintings or drawings as photos. Thankfully, about the time I was being introduced to his work, he was experiencing something of a renaissance in popularity, and I had several books available to learn more about him, including the recently published American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen and a reissue of one of Mortensen’s own books, The Command to Look. (If my story intrigues you at all, I highly recommend both.)

In researching Mortensen, I became fascinated, not merely by his methods and the images they produced, but by his life. And gradually, I knew that I would eventually write a story about him, at least roundaboutly. And that story eventually became “Mortensen’s Muse.” In it, I took as my jumping-off point the real-life relationship between Mortensen and then-undiscovered ingenue Fay Wray. Given my fascination with Golden Age Hollywood stories, the combination was too tempting to resist.

At one time, the story was probably going to go ahead and feature William Mortensen, but as I wrote it, I discovered that, as much as it hewed close to the facts in many places, it also diverged from them in important ways, and not just in its supernatural denouement, so I decided to change some names. William Mortensen became Ronald Mortensen, and the names of our “unidentified” narrator’s films all changed subtly, though her co-stars and directors remained the same.

“Mortensen’s Muse” was written for Ellen Datlow’s anthology Children of Lovecraft, where I’m ecstatic to say that it represents two very important firsts for me. It’s my first time in an original Ellen Datlow anthology (my story “Persistence of Vision” previously appeared in her Best Horror of the Year Volume 7) and my first time behind a Mike Mignola cover. Considering those have both been life goals of mine, you could say that I’m pretty happy with this publication, and not be at all incorrect. Below is a photo of my contributor copy, which came packaged very neatly from Dark Horse, and just today a very positive review of the antho went live at Cemetery Dance Online, in which the reviewer says of my story, “If H.P. Lovecraft had written for The Twilight Zone, this could have been the story he would have written.” There is definitely worse praise to get than that…

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In the commentary track for Halloween, John Carpenter talks about people coming up to him and telling him how traumatized they were by the scene when Michael Myers is unmasked at the end of the movie. The irony, of course, being that under the mask is no monstrous makeup job, a la Jason, but simply actor Tony Moran. (Poor guy, traumatizing all those people with his relatively average-looking mug.)

Back in the days before we all had Halloween on Blu-ray, though, and could watch and re-watch it in high definition to our hearts’ content, that scene stuck with us, and in our memories we conjured an image of it that was true to our experience, while straying from the actual facts. This was a phenomenon with which, as a young horror fan, I was very familiar.

Most recently, I watched Creepshow again for the first time in quite a few years, and was reminded of my inaccurate recollections re: the monster from the segment “The Crate.” In my memories, we never see the monster clearly until his final kill, when he drags Adrienne Barbeau’s Billy into the crate.

Of course, that isn’t accurate at all. We get several really clear shots of the monster throughout the segment, including during those sequences. But in my imagination, the monster is mostly suggestion, just claws and fur and teeth and menace, only shown in clarity in those final comic book panel moments. And no matter how many times I learn otherwise, that’s how I’ll always remember it, just like those people who were traumatized by Michael’s unmasking will never be un-traumatized, no matter how many times they see that he’s just Tony Moran underneath.

(On a tangent: The monster from “The Crate” is actually a good representation of something that I harp on a lot when it comes to creating supernatural horror stories. The monster is scary because it eats people, absolutely. But what’s much scarier than that is the fact that it has survived in that crate under those stairs for more than a hundred years without eating anything.)

[This post originally appeared on my Patreon.]

Tonight is Walpurgisnacht, which, if it means nothing else, means that we’re at the halfway point on our trip back around to Halloween. Along with your bonfires and whatever else, I recommend some seasonally appropriate reading to mark the occasion. As you probably already know, I’ve got a story called “Walpurgisnacht” that takes place tonight and which initially appeared in The Children of Old Leech, though you can also read it in my second collection, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, both of which are available from Word Horde. Want a taste? You can read an excerpt from the beginning of “Walpurgisnacht” right here.

And speaking of Word Horde, this auspicious day also marks the debut of Mike Griffin’s, well, debut collection, The Lure of Devouring Light, published by, well, you guessed it.

If your reading card is all filled out for the night, might I recommend a suitably witchy film for your Walpurgisnacht enjoyment? Suspiria is always a good bet, but may be too familiar. Hammer’s The Witches is a little less often-seen, and is a particular favorite of mine. And though I don’t actually remember much about it, I’ve now got an ingrained soft spot for Virgin Witch, thanks to a late-night viewing with Simon Berman of Strix Publishing on the heels of the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival a couple years back.

Whatever particular form your libation or revel may take this evening, happy Walpurgisnacht to all who celebrate! Tend to your bonfires, watch out for strange shapes in the sky, and beware of music from beneath the ground. See you all in May, when we’re on the downhill slope toward All Hallow’s Eve.

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Aliens

It was March 14, 1989 when I first saw Aliens in its broadcast television premiere. (Thanks to Jason McKittrick of Cryptocorium for helping me track down the date.) I must have been seven years old–I would turn eight that October–and it hit me the same way that Star Wars seems to have hit most everyone else.

To this day, I remember the scenes from the CBS Special Movie presentation intro, which included my first glimpse of the famous xenomorph design, and I also remember being confused by my later viewings of the theatrical cut, which was missing several scenes that were added back into the television version, notably the moment when Ripley learns about her daughter. It led to one of those bizarre situations that sometimes happened in the days before DVDs and special editions, where I knew something about a movie that wasn’t included in any cut of the movie that I could conveniently find, and so I wondered if I had perhaps made it up.

I had seen other horror movies before, of course. I grew up watching stuff like Squirm and C.H.U.D.The Food of the Gods and countless Godzilla flicks. I think that I had even seen bits and pieces of Predator when my brother rented it on video. I remember watching Cronenberg’s The Fly on network TV while eating a hamburger, and my mom coming into the living room during some particularly gross scene, and asking how I could eat while watching that. I don’t know if that was before or after I saw Aliens. (I wonder now how heavily edited The Fly must have been to even show up on TV in those days.)

But when I first saw Aliens, it was like nothing else I had ever seen. It felt more complex and more ambitious than I was used to my monster movies being, and I was struck by the design–and, of course, the life cycle–of the eponymous creatures. The alien queen might have been my first introduction to the idea of the boss monster in cinema, and the battle between the queen and Ripley in the cargo-loader exosuit, with its callback to the great stop-motion monster battles of King Kong and Ray Harryhausen, and the rubber suit wrestling matches of the Godzilla films, had an enormous impact on my young imagination.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in love with movies, but seeing Aliens was, without a doubt, a turning point in that fascination. The Alien franchise became my first fandom, for lack of a better word, a fact that was only reinforced by the gradual revelation that the Alien and Predator films might take place in the same universe–another concept that, while not actually original, was new to me at the time.

When I saw Aliens for the first time, I had no idea that it was a sequel to anything, and the opening minutes of the movie felt so amazingly ground-breaking to me. Here was this character we met in media res, having survived some strange off-screen ordeal that primed her for the one that was coming. It’s an oddly inaccurate experience, but one that has remained lodged in my consciousness ever since, one that I come back to again and again.

I don’t remember when I first saw Alien, but I saw Alien 3 and Resurrection in the theatre. I bought piles of the Aliens and Predator toys that Kenner brought out in the 90s, with their various animal-themed xenomorphs. I even got the cloaked (ie, cast in clear plastic) “Ambush Predator” figure that you had to send away for.

Through it all, Aliens remained my favorite movie in either franchise, and something very close to my favorite movie period (a slot it probably had to share with Monster Squad). And while today other films have usurped that favorite spot, and my affection for the Alien and Predator flicks are as much nostalgia as not, both franchises are ones I own on Blu-ray and revisit regularly. (Less so the unfortunate crossover films, though I’ve seen both of them more times than they probably deserve.)

Their influence was so formative that I can’t really identify all the ways that the Alien films made inroads into my creative output. Besides obvious places like the near-closing line of “Painted Monsters,” that big, haunting, H.R. Giger-designed ship with its ancient astronaut and its payload of mysterious eggs, the grotesque and bizarre life-cycle of the aliens themselves, that line from the CBS intro, “so who’s laying these eggs,” that shot of the xenomorph rising up out of the water behind Newt, the alien queen, the enormous ships that were like floating industrial blocks, all of it feels like my gateway to so many of my later obsessions, from the grim future of Warhammer 40k to weird fiction.

To this day, the films hold a special place in my pantheon, and they remain one of a  handful of franchises for which I would love to one day write licensed fiction. So in honor of “Alien Day” (4/26, get it?) , I figured it was high time to do something to pay tribute to one of the most important cinematic experiences of my life. So here’s to you, Aliens CBS Special Movie Presentation. You may not have started it all, but you sure as hell started a lot.

 

For the month of March and into April I was watching with some interest a March Madness-style bracketed tournament over at the Save Horror Twitter in which their best-reviewed movies competed for reader votes to see which one would ultimately emerge on top. A few days ago, I expressed my enthusiasm on Facebook when A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Thing beat The Shining and The Exorcist, respectively. Not, as I said then, because I think those movies are necessarily better than the ones they beat (though, if I’m honest, I probably do think that) but because I was happy to see them all breathing the same rarefied air.

Later, I was somewhat less enthusiastic (we’ll say) to see Nightmare beat The Thing, but, as I observed then, my revisionist glee sometimes cuts both ways. Yesterday, the contest came to a close with A Nightmare on Elm Street beating out first Psycho and then the two-time previous champ Halloween to take the top slot. It’s not the film I would have chosen for the honor, but good for it, anyway.

Do I think that Halloween is a better movie than A Nightmare on Elm Street? By most measures, yeah, absolutely. Moreover, do I think that it’s a more apt movie to represent horror as a whole–sampling, as it does, from so many of the things that make up the genre? Sure. Do I think Halloween or Nightmare (or any of the other contenders, for that matter) is the best horror movie ever made? I have no idea. Honestly, my nature makes me somewhat allergic to the whole idea of picking a “best” anything.

That said, the joy I felt at seeing Nightmare and The Thing besting their more-respected elders (if only by a couple of years in The Shining‘s case) remains. Not, again, because I have anything against The Shining or The Exorcist or any of the other more well-regarded entries into the horror canon that populated the list, but because I’m pleased to witness the slow, steady process of revisionism that is seeing movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street as every bit the classics that those films have long been acknowledged as.

So while I wouldn’t necessarily elevate A Nightmare on Elm Street above The Thing or Halloween or Psycho in my own personal pantheon, I’m thrilled to see them all sitting at the same table. That’s good enough for now.

So here I am, almost two months into 2016, and I finally saw a movie in theatres for the first time this year, and of course it was a movie that technically came out last year, apparently, though it didn’t get a wide release until now. I have a feeling this post is going to get pretty far off topic, so before it does, I’ll give you what I’m sure you came here for: The Witch is a potent brew, and one that I recommend drinking down.

We saw it in a basically empty theatre with only two other people in the whole place. They were quiet and respectful throughout the movie, but as the credits rolled, they certainly looked perplexed. Then, on the way out, we were stopped by a handful of (young) theatre employees who said that they had tried watching The Witch and gotten maybe an hour into it, but it was boring and they kept waiting for something to happen.

Both of these reactions baffle me, honestly, because, like the movie or not, I found The Witch to be pretty straightforward, really, and surprisingly fast (if deliberately) paced. Maybe some of the disconnect comes from the fully twenty minutes of trailers that preceded the movie, which demonstrated with utter facility that the people responsible for programming such things had no idea who the target audience for a film like this is.

Prior to walking into the theatre, I shared a link to this post on Facebook, where I said that I hadn’t seen anyone reacting that way to those movies, which, at the time, was true. Since then, over on Twitter, Bret Easton Ellis, speaking in the voice of a thousand fratboys, chimed in, “Indie Arthouse Horror is becoming my least favorite new genre: It Follows, Goodnight Mommy, The Babadook, The Witch.”

Oddly enough, I feel like both the author of the original post and Ellis are doing The Witch a disservice by lumping it in with films like It Follows and The Babadook, a comparison that is apt only insofar as they are all more or less successful independent horror features released in the last few years with modest budgets and deliberate pacing. I would instead place The Witch in its rightful position in the spectrum of folk horror films, where it joins the likes of  Witchfinder GeneralThe WitchesThe Blood on Satan’s ClawThe Wicker Man, and more recently SaunaBlack DeathKill List, and A Field in England. That The Witch adds to that very respectable pantheon the lens of early American Puritanism also places it in the spectrum of Puritan witch panic narratives, and means that it’s probably about as close to a Daniel Mills story as we’re ever likely to get on film, because we inhabit a cold and uncaring universe.

While walking out of the theatre, we also had a discussion about how we need a more robust vocabulary for talking about whether or not things are scary. It’s a subject that I’ll get into some in my forthcoming piece for Nightmare Magazine‘s The H Word column, and one that came up last year surrounding Crimson Peak, a movie that I did see plenty of people claim wasn’t horror, sometimes its critics and sometimes its supporters. For what it’s worth, if pressed, I would call the emotion that The Witch prompts “dread” instead of “fear,” while I would call even the most intense of my own stories “creepy” instead of “scary.”

While I hadn’t seen many people disparaging The Witch prior to seeing it–and certainly none claiming that it wasn’t horror–what I had seen were plenty of the equal and opposite reaction, people saying that movies like The Witch and It Follows are the only legitimate horror films that have been released in the past however-long. Again, I find both of those positions equally wrongheaded.

Personally, I liked The Witch, thought The Babadook was pretty good, was disappointed in It Follows, and dug The Conjuring. But to draw arbitrary lines in the sand and say that one isn’t horror while another is seems fruitless and, ultimately, reductive to the genre, no matter which side of the line you’re on. I don’t care for Cabin Fever, but I would never argue that it isn’t horror.

Over on his Twitter, The Conjuring director James Wan has been very vocal in his support for The Witch. Ultimately, trying to stack the one up against the other seems like a pretty pointless endeavor. Both are very successful movies, and both are very emphatically horror, and hell, both even involve witches, but they’re operating in two completely different modes. And that’s fine. Variety is, after all, the spice of life, and who doesn’t want to live deliciously? We don’t have to like everything that comes out in order to embrace the diversity of horror that’s available to us. As J.T. Glover put it perfectly in response to my Facebook post, “Many shades of black are better than one.”

 

 

big-hero-6-movie-sharedBeginning last year, I started keeping a journal in which I write down every movie that I watch. If I’ve already seen the movie before, I put a black asterisk by it. This serves a lot of purposes, including helping to jog my memory, but it’s also helpful at the end of year when it comes time to assemble the top 10 list that I’m expected to compile for Downright Creepy. It also helps me to keep a running tally of how many movies I’ve seen that came out this year, and in order to make end-of-the-year lists easier on myself, I’ve been keeping that tally in rough order of preference.

This weekend, I passed on seeing Interstellar–which I saw someone on Twitter describe as “Bullshit Space Dad Feelings Movie,” which probably isn’t at all fair, but more or less sums up my impression of the trailer–and instead caught an unexpected late showing of Big Hero 6, which rapidly jumped up near the top of that list.

There are a half-dozen or so movies jostling for my top spot of the year, and three of them are Marvel movies, and I think there’s something going on there, besides just that Marvel has got this making-movies-out-of-comic-books thing down. Big Hero 6 doesn’t look like it needs any boost from me–it beat Insterstellar at the box office, has an 89% at Rotten Tomatoes, and seems to be doing just fine for itself–but while I’ve seen several people talk about Big Hero 6 in a mostly positive way, it’s typically also been in a way that dismisses it as “entertaining and pretty,” as in the consensus over at the aforementioned Rotten Tomatoes. While I’m sure someone somewhere else has tackled this already, and probably more intelligently than I’m about to, I do think that, just as with my pick for number one movie last year in Pacific Rim, there’s something more important going on here than just a pretty, agreeable kids movie, and something that’s reflected in the other great superhero movies that came out this year, and that are rubbing shoulders with Big Hero 6 for my top spot.

In a word: Optimism. I grew up as a kid reading comics mostly in the 90s, during the Image boom which was defined by holographic foil variant covers, ridiculously big guns, and grim-n-gritty storytelling. As a kid, I didn’t mind. I ate that stuff up. I had tons of Spawn comics and WildC.A.T.s and all that other nonsense, and my best friend’s favorite artist was Rob Liefeld, and we didn’t think there was anything wrong with that.

But for a long while now, grim-n-gritty story lines have dominated the comics landscape, and pretty much until the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they were all there was when it came to even halfway decent superhero films. Grim-n-gritty has its place, and while we all may now look back and make fun of the early Image comics lineup–which we’re allowed to do, because we did time in those trenches–there are plenty of good comics that are grim-n-gritty. But while that may work for Batman, superhero comics (and films) are capable–I’d argue uniquely capable–of being a lot of other things, too. While Alan Moore’s (impeccable, don’t get me wrong) work on Watchmen and its various imitators have forever codified the previously-unspoken connection between superheroes and fascism (not to mention fetishism), superheroes are also inextricably linked to that much more pleasant -ism, optimism. And this has been a good year–maybe the best year in cinematic history–for optimistic superhero movies.

While you may be able to debate the optimism of what is probably this year’s best superhero flick, Winter Soldier*, it seems pretty indisputable that Guardians of the Galaxy and Big Hero 6 are situated firmly in optimistic territory. In the former we have a movie in which a lovable band of misfits literally save the world by holding hands, and both are films that are emphatically about the importance of teamwork and believing in the best in yourself. I’ve already talked about Guardians of the Galaxy, so let me touch briefly on Big Hero 6.

One of the key things preventing Big Hero 6 from being discussed in the more serious terms that we mostly seem to reserve for live action films and Pixar movies is that, on the surface, it isn’t really doing anything particularly new. The animation looks great, and San Fransokyo is a great setting, but fundamentally, a lot of Big Hero 6 feels pretty familiar, from the standard-issue comic book origin story to the action sequences and a flying scene that–while still touching–could have been lifted straight from How to Train Your Dragon. Like with Pacific Rim, the important stuff in Big Hero 6 is hidden under the hood of the narrative. But under that hood, a lot of big stuff is going on.

Not only is this a movie about teamwork and being yourself, and a flick that actually earns its “revenge isn’t the answer” message, it’s also an extremely science-positive, all-ages adventure that champions learning and caring–as exemplified by the diverse team of geniuses whose powers all derive from their interests and personalities, and the fact that Baymax, the movie’s symbol and anchor, is actually a caregiver robot. Given that, pretty much until the release of Iron Man back in 2008, superhero movies almost universally downplayed the intellects of their characters in favor of their more aggressive traits and cool emotional problems, that’s a big deal.

Like I said earlier, there’s a place in superhero comics and movies for grim-n-gritty story lines, but for my money what superheroes do best is to highlight the best of what people are capable of. When they’re firing on all cylinders, superhero stories can tell optimistic, all-ages tales about teamwork, friendship, and believing in yourself better than just about any other medium. It’s easy to dismiss optimistic stories in favor of grimmer ones, but looking around the world right now, I think those messages are ones that we sorely need, and I’m thrilled to see them getting the kind of big screen treatment that they deserve. Long live the optimistic superhero movie!

* I’d argue that Winter Soldier is as much about teamwork and believing in people (instead of systems) as any of the other movies I talked about here, but those themes are encased in a more chilling paranoia-driven thriller story structure that makes them perhaps a bit less accessible.