Suspiria wasn’t quite my first giallo film, even if purists would probably call it something more like giallo-adjacent. I had previously seen Phenomena (aka Creepers), but hadn’t really known how to understand it, let alone respond to it. So when I watched Suspiria for the first time–late at night, streaming it on my laptop, headphones clamped over my ears blasting that exquisite soundtrack–it was a revelation.

Throughout my life I have had many favorite movies, and I have had a handful of movies that were something other than favorites. Films that changed the way I watched, thought about, and consumed movies. They aren’t always the ones I love the most, but they hold a special place because of the impact they had on me, on my life, my imagination, and my work. Suspiria was one of those.

It’s easy to say that, well, of course it was, Suspiria is a classic. But I don’t think that it necessarily has as much to do with the quality of the film as the moment when you see it. If I had seen Suspiria a few years earlier–say, when I first saw Phenomena–would it have hit me in the same way? I honestly don’t know.

Thanks to Suspiria, I have become a giallo fan. Or, at least, a fan of those gialli I have seen, mostly the work of Argento and Mario Bava. I wrote a story for Giallo Fantastique which I’m pretty proud of, and I think my affection for the genre has infiltrated much of my work in subtle ways.

Here’s the thing, though. When people talk about gialli, they always talk about the death scenes. After all, giallo films are the precursors of modern slashers or “body count movies,” and for many genre enthusiasts, it’s all about waiting for the next kill. And certainly the kills in giallo films are justly notorious. There are only a handful of deaths in Suspiria, but all of them are one kind of excruciating or another. Probably my favorite “straight” giallo, Bava’s Blood and Black Lace has a higher body count and is also full of cringe-inducing deaths. But for me, the kill shots aren’t what endear me to giallo. In fact, they’re more often a bug than a feature, a speed bump I have to get over in order to resume my enjoyment of what I signed up for.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not so highbrow that I can’t enjoy a good death scene, even an occasionally excruciating one. I’ve seen all the Final Destination movies, and if there is a franchise that is defined by just hanging around waiting for people to die in grotesque and unlikely ways, it’s that one.

And it’s not as if the deaths in giallo films don’t sometimes stick in my brain. I may not be able to run down the specifics, but I can clearly remember snapshots of the first murder in Suspiria, the piano wire scene, the hot stove in Blood and Black Lace, the bathtub in Deep Red, etc. Maybe it’s that I find the death scenes in giallo films too unpleasant to really enjoy, and that’s not even going into the implied (or not-so-implied) misogyny or other problematic elements. But I don’t think even that’s it. I just think those are the parts of giallo that draw me in the least, not because of anything that’s wrong with them, but because of what’s so right about what’s going on around them.

I come to gialli for the visuals, the colors, the music, the cinematography, and above all the sense of weird menace that seems to pervade every frame of the best of the bunch, a surreal feeling of unease and disassociation that not even the best genuinely supernatural horror movies tend to be able to match. When it works, there’s a magic there that I have rarely found in any other subgenre. It’s what draws me back, what I’m always looking for when I peer behind this particular curtain. What I try (and so far probably mostly fail) to infuse into my work, when I get the opportunity.

Thanks to Adam Roberts and the folks at the Screenland Armour, our awesome local movie theatre, I recently got to see what I am told was the second-ever screening of the new 4k remaster of Suspiria in America. I can’t honestly speak to how different it was from previous versions (besides redder) but I can say that, when that unmistakable theme first came up, I got those same goosebumps as the first time all over again.

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This hasn’t been a big year for conventions for me. While I attended the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird in Atlanta, I missed NecronomiCon by a hair, which means that I have to wait two more years for another chance to go rub shoulders with all the east coast weirdos. However, I will be attending the 22nd annual H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland the first full weekend in October.

What’s more, not only will I once again be attending as a guest, I’ll also be contributing to the round-robin Challenge from Beyond, which you can pick up as an add-on to your pledge to the HPLFF Kickstarter which, wouldn’t you know it, is happening now!

So why am I extra-excited about this particular HPLFF, besides that it’s still my favorite convention, I get to see a bunch of old friends and meet Phil Gelatt in person finally? Because the brand new, deluxe edition of Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings from Strix Publishing will also be launching at the HPLFF this year! I recently saw photographic evidence of the proofs, which have arrived at the Strix Publishing offices, and the book should be ready by the time the festival rolls around. If you can’t make it to the fest and didn’t Kickstart the book, no worries, you can still pre-order a copy right here and they should ship around early October, if all goes according to plan!

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the HPLFF as it draws nearer, but for now, I’ll see you there, if you’re going!

NBtD_Proof

Death Note

How do you make a movie that feels simultaneously boring and way too short? Ask Adam Wingard, I guess. Wingard’s name was what drew me to the Americanized Netflix original movie version of Death Note in the first place, having never read the manga or watched the anime or any of the various Japanese live action versions. Wingard had previously impressed with his 2011 film You’re Next and then even moreso with 2014’s The Guest, and while I wasn’t a big fan of his take on Blair Witch, I was willing to cut him enough slack to be curious about Death Note.

Honestly, in spite of my snarky opening up there, I’m really not sure how much of Death Note‘s failures lie at Wingard’s feet. This is a movie that feels, at every step, like it needs to have been a series, which, obviously, it already was, more than once. As a result, the film has the weird feeling of shortening or skipping over all the most interesting bits and short-changing most of the character building, giving it a sense of being at once thin and overstuffed.

Like a number of other recent movies, Death Note has been at the heart of a whitewashing controversy for importing the original characters from Japan to Seattle and making them American. I don’t feel like I’m the right person to ask about the whitewashing aspect of the film, but I do feel like Death Note made a fatal mistake by being an adaptation of the source material at all. The core concept of the series (as I understand it) seems like one that could be re-purposed into dozens of stories, so if you’re going to make an American version, do it as a sequel or spin-off of the original, rather than a retelling. Something that fits less awkwardly into an hour-and-forty-minute frame. (Not only would this have spared the film at least some of its whitewashing problems, it would also eliminate the need to buy that Shea Whigham’s character actually named his son “Light,” even with the flimsy “explanation” that his mom “was always kind of a hippie.”)

Of course, if the movie had a different story, it might also lose its greatest strength, which is Lakeith Stanfield as “L.” Having never read the manga or watched the anime, I don’t know what the character of “L” was like before, but Stanfield’s performance makes him far and away the best thing in the film, absolutely stealing the movie out from under everyone else. (I’d say something like “Lakeith Stanfield as Batman,” but, let’s be honest, his jittery, candy-guzzling “L” is already kinda better than Batman, isn’t he?)

The good news is, the Adam Wingard of You’re Next and The Guest seems to be at least somewhat back in Death Note, with its shots of “L” prowling through the halls of a nightclub or perching in every chair that he occupies. The visuals of Death Note stay fairly interesting even when the story flounders, though some shots, like an early image of spilled marbles rolling across the floor, needed to hold a little longer to really kick. (There’s a review of Death Note over at Birth. Movies. Death. that says most of what I would say about the film, while also being maybe a little more generous than I would be.)

Ultimately, I can’t speak to how Death Note holds up if you’re a fan of the anime/manga/whatever, though most fans I know have so far been disappointed. I can say that probably the highest praise I can muster for this Netflix original (besides that it really needs to cement Lakeith Stanfield as a star), is that it made me want to track down the other versions. So I guess that’s something.

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Picture I took prior to totality, by pressing my eclipse glasses against the lens of my phone’s camera.

Sometime when I was a kid, I saw a partial solar eclipse. I don’t really remember much about it besides that we went out to see it during school and we had to wear special glasses. It didn’t impress me too much. Cut to: 2017. I know that there’s an eclipse coming up, and that it’s a big deal, because it’s the first total solar eclipse to be visible in the United States since before I was born, and the first to cut a path of totality across the entire continent in almost a hundred years. What I don’t realize, until I hear people talking about it on the radio, is what the difference between totality and not is.

Olathe, where I live, is going to get something like 99.7% of the eclipse, so I figure, that’s enough, right? But I hear the people on the radio explaining the immense difference between, say, that 99.7% and 100%. Apparently, even 0.1% of the sun is still 1000 times brighter than the full moon. At 100% all sorts of weird things happen. It gets dark as night in the middle of the day, there’s a “sunset” on every horizon, the temperature drops considerably, and so on. So we decide that we want to see totality, which can be accomplished just a short drive away.

Luckily for us, one of our friends has already picked out a spot that’s having a special “eclipse brunch” up north of Atchison, pretty much smack dab in the middle of the totality. So we drive up there super early to avoid traffic, and wait around keeping a wary eye on the clouds in the hopes that we’ll get to see the eclipse. Spoiler: We are not disappointed.

So, prior to actually experiencing the totality, I was pretty keen to see the “day-to-night” effect, but, remembering (or mostly not remembering, as the case may be) my prior experience with (partial) eclipses, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. I wasn’t.

I had heard people talk about what being in the path of totality was like in almost religious terms, and I assumed it was overstatement, but it wasn’t. I have never had another experience quite like it. Watching the light drop away was literally like watching someone turn a dimmer switch on the planet. I can understand why people would go so far out of their way to experience this, and why even a few more precious seconds of totality would be worth an awful lot of extra effort. (We were lucky and got more than two minutes.)

Sadly, the eclipse doesn’t seem to have automatically knocked us back into the prime timeline yet, but on the other side of it, at least for today, it really does feel a little bit more like magic is possible in this world.

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The false sunset that was visible all the way around the horizon during totality. Photo taken a few minutes after 1pm.

Let’s see if we can’t torpedo any remaining credibility I may have as a consumer of horror media, shall we? Recently, I’ve been watching the two seasons of R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour that are on Netflix. Initially, I was doing this because each episode was a standalone story that was only about 20 minutes long, which fit nicely with my “watch something while I eat lunch” approach to consuming media lately. However, once I got started, it didn’t take me long to continue watching because, frankly, The Haunting Hour is actually pretty damn good.

Because I was initially just watching out of convenience, I started picking out episodes with appealing-sounding synopses, not necessarily planning to ever watch the entire thing, so I ended up watching the two seasons completely out of order. Even so, while there were better and worse episodes, there were very few that I genuinely didn’t like, which is more than I can say of a lot of anthology horror. (“Best Friend Forever” may have been the worst of the lot, but it was also probably the most overtly comedic and overall the more comedic episodes tended to fare less well than their more serious counterparts, though I was also still happy to have them, as they helped give the show variety.)

My favorite episode from the first two seasons was probably the season 2 Halloween episode “Pumpkinhead,” while “Mascot” has one of the most genuinely disturbing creatures I’ve ever seen on film. Speaking of creatures, the next time I see someone wondering where all the practical creature effects have gone in modern horror, I know what to tell them: Apparently, they all went to R.L. Stine TV shows. Seriously, while there are a few (sometimes dodgy) CGI ghost effects in The Haunting Hour, this show, like Spooksville, which I watched a year or two back, is lousy with practical makeup effects and rubber suit creatures.

While just about all of the stories are classic “campfire horror” fare, they vary somewhat in their ultimate execution. Some tales take a more lighthearted approach, with the “good guys” winning out. More often, however, things take a darker turn, sometimes in a moralistic way as unpleasant, selfish, or ill-behaved characters receive their (usually severe) comeuppance, while other times even our most “likable” and well-meaning protagonists still end up on the wrong end of whatever ghost, monster, or other weirdness is going on.  (The apocalyptic “Scarecrow” is a good example of how nihilistic the show is capable of getting without any real bloodshed.)

There are also plenty of familiar plots, even when they’re not in the “be careful what you wish for” type vein. The season 2 episode “Headshot” is basically a retelling of “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” while the season 1 episode “Afraid of Clowns” is reminiscent of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” But, y’know, with clowns. There are also odd cinematic coincidences. In the season 1 episode “The Dead Body,” Brendan Meyer plays a bullied kid who strikes up a relationship with a ghost that is a lot like his relationship with “David” in The Guest four years later, while “A Creature was Stirring” has a plot that heavily prefigures Michael Dougherty’s 2015 film Krampus, even while its titular creature is more obviously inspired by Gremlins.

Some other notable episodes include “Dreamcatcher,” “Flight,” and “Catching Cold,” to name a few. There are things wrong with The Haunting Hour, of course. It has some problems with representation, and, with a few exceptions, most of its tween protagonists live in suburban mansions by comparison to anyplace I ever lived. Meanwhile, an episode like “The Hole” actually ends up being chilling due to its implications of domestic abuse more than any supernatural goings-on. Ultimately, though, if you don’t mind stories aimed at younger viewers and a PG-level lack of gore (even while often reaching for some genuinely unsettling thematic conclusions), The Haunting Hour is a surprisingly robust bunch of campfire-style horror stories, broken up into easy-to-consume chunks. At least for the first two seasons…

 

Shin Godzilla

I’m big enough to admit when I’m wrong. I had been kind of reticent about watching Shin Godzilla because I wasn’t expecting to like it much. I thought I was going to be getting another “dark and gritty” take on something that, frankly, I didn’t need a dark and gritty take on, and while that isn’t exactly inaccurate, it also doesn’t do the film justice at all. As it turns out, Shin Godzilla isn’t just a great alternative take on Godzilla, it’s just great. Period. Full stop.

One of the things I was most concerned about going in was that I kind of hate the new Godzilla design. Don’t get me wrong, I love him when he’s a stupid, goggle-eyed lungfish dragging himself around and coughing radioactive blood out of his gills all over the place. But the actual “final” Godzilla design doesn’t do it for me in still photos, or in action figures, or anyplace else I had seen it before finally sitting down to watch the movie. And, admittedly, there are problems with the suit’s execution, maybe most notably that it is remarkably immobile, to the point where Godzilla may as well be a giant sculpture being dragged through the city on a track for long stretches. In the course of the film, though, even when he isn’t moving much–and, it must be noted, this iteration of Godzilla does just up and literally shut down for long stretches of the movie for plot reasons, standing in the middle of the ruins of Tokyo and not doing anything–this new Godzilla design works.

Part of why it works is because this Godzilla is something very different than previous iterations. Not only is Godzilla scary for probably the first time since 1954, but this Godzilla is constantly mutating, changing from that dumb lungfish version (which, do I need to reiterate, I absolutely love) through a couple of metamorphoses before we reach the “final” form. (And the movie teases us with the possibility of other, further mutations that we never actually get to see.) As a sort of living nuclear reactor that is in a constant state of biological flux, this new Godzilla no longer seems like just a way to make one of our most classic monsters “more extreme” as envisioned by a 90s comic book artist, but instead seems like a coherent design decision. (They even address his ridiculous jagged teeth.)

And while Godzilla’s rampage lacks the immediacy of the 1954 original’s image of Tokyo as a “sea of flames,” there’s no denying its impact, especially in the sequence when Godzilla unleashes his most destructive power. Nor has there probably ever been another disaster movie–kaiju or otherwise–that showcased such an absurdly realistic take on this kind of devastation. In this case, however, “realism” does not mean a lot of shots of filthy, bloody people suffering. It means a lot of shots of people sitting around in conference rooms and talking on phones.

And that is where Shin Godzilla‘s greatest strength comes to bear. As an attempt at taking Godzilla seriously, it works remarkably well. As an attempt to make Godzilla scary again it works perhaps even better. But it works best as a black comic satire of bureaucracy. The 2014 American Godzilla remake took a lot of (deserved) flak for sidelining Godzilla, or shrouding his skirmishes in smoke and debris, or burying them on the screens of televisions in the background. But the real crime in Godzilla (2014) wasn’t “not enough Godzilla,” it was “too many boring people.”

Shin Godzilla seems to take that challenge and extend it to the next level. It’s a film that is perhaps best summarized by a montage sequence in which intense rock music plays over shots of people talking on phones. The reaction to Godzilla’s abrupt arrival on the scene is mired in red tape and internecine conflicts. One of the funniest parts of Shin Godzilla isn’t even anything that would normally be considered a joke. Instead, it’s that literally every time anyone speaks or we are shown anything, there are subtitles on the screen identifying who or what it is in weirdly minute detail. So many, in fact, that it often becomes nearly impossible to read all the words that are being hurled at you. It’s both a play on the form of the modern disaster movie, and an effective way to drop the viewer into the bureaucratic quagmire of the film.

Helping everything along is great music–often repurposing the classic score of the original film–and the fact that, aside from some dodgy CGI and the aforementioned weirdly immobile suit, Shin Godzilla looks great. It utilizes a lot of found footage elements, especially early on, but it is also full of lingering, pulled back shots of everything from crowded conference rooms to empty streets to rain-soaked railroad tracks to a bowl of ramen. It’s a beautiful movie, and a potent one, and a surprisingly funny one, if not often in a laugh-out-loud sort of way. And while the characters are constantly bogged down in quotidian tasks, everything is shot and edited with a faux-documentarian flair that never makes any of it feel boring.

Would I want every Godzilla movie to be like this? No, not at all. This feels like one-of-a-kind, and I think it is probably the better for it. But judged on its own merits, I can say without a doubt that I was wrong about Shin Godzilla. It’s a hell of a thing.

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Artwork by Sophie Campbell.

Been busy with this and that, but felt the need to drop in with the news of a couple of recent story sales for those who may have missed the announcements on social media. What do these sales have in common? Both books have really freaking cool covers, for starters!

Terror in 16-BitsFirst off, my brand new 10,000-word novelette “The Drunkard’s Dream” will be showing up behind a pitch-perfect Splatterhouse tribute cover by Peter Lazarski, creator of Halloween Forever, in Terror in 16-Bits from Muzzleland Press and edited by Jonathan Raab. My story is inspired partly by Ghosts N Goblins-alikes, partly by the various coin-operated dioramas from which it takes its name, and heavily from extrapolated autobiographical experiences, albeit not the ones you might expect from the title. Terror in 16-Bits will be making its debut this August at NecronomiCon, and will be for sale to the public soon after.

Meanwhile, my story “Haruspicate or Scry” will be in Ross E. Lockhart’s Tales from a Talking Board, stories of auguries, divination, and fortune telling coming this October from Word Horde. (Also, it’s available for pre-order right now!) Its cover (by the great Yves Tourigny) has the distinction of being an actual working talking board, and I have it on good authority that orders placed direct from Word Horde may come with their very own planchette bookmarks!

As for my story, it involves heavy doses of Scrabble, the skeptical legacy of old-fashioned stage magicians, T.S. Eliot, and more than a dash of Rosemary’s Baby. Also, some autobiographical stuff, because I guess that’s just how I roll these days.

Tales from a Talking Board