THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JULY
2012

 

Last time I shared some thoughts about the film ZARDOZ, a movie that many consider a ‘guilty pleasure'. I talked about the fact that some modern viewers look at the fashions and production designs, and hear some of the earnestness of the story themes and dialogue, and have a difficult time reconciling them with contemporary storytelling.  

Because of this, some people find the film ‘campy' or 'cheesy. I happen to disagree, but there is a whole school of film fans, and Horror film fans in particular, that look back at some of the older, less expensive films with derision, enjoying them for the sole purpose of denigrating them. They point to the spare production values, clichéd scripts and overly-emphatic acting and ask, "How can anyone take this seriously?" 

Now, I'm not defending most of the low-budget, quickly cranked out product that passed for Horror and Dark Fantasy in times past. (Or not even in times past; I won't defend the "mockbusters" that crowd the video shelves today; they are and remain a waste of time, despite how much 'fun' genre observes tell you they are.) But I do think a few things have to be said about film state-of-the-art and that elusive quality of “suspension of disbelief.”  

Let's be honest: much of the genre we enjoy is ridiculous. Based on myths and childish fears, many of our favorite and iconic pleasures tend to fall apart under too much examination. How can the Headless Horseman see to steer his mount? Considering that the moon is actually always full (it's just the earth's shadow that creates the illusion of its waning), why aren't werewolves changing every night? Does it matter if it's overcast? Wasn't Dracula taking a chance killing off the entire crew of the Demeter before it arrived in port? What if it had hit, say, a passing iceberg like the Titanic? Even if Jason Voorhees is indestructible, does he have to sew up the various axe wounds, arrow holes, shotgun blasts and other destructive acts to his epidermis? What do zombies do once they've had enough to eat?

Well, you get the idea. As Harlan Ellison has pointed out many times, even classic novels and films can sound ridiculous if you pull them apart and simplify excessively. ("Moby Dick" is about a crazy sea captain chasing the whale that ate his leg. I saw that when they called it ORCA ...) Obviously it isn't always the details of the story that are important; it's the earnestness and skills brought by the storyteller to the work that makes it immortal. Val Lewton was given miniscule budgets and garish titles dreamed up by studio publicity men, yet his films overshadowed the larger budgeted studio pictures of his time, and they remain classic touchstones of adult Horror to this day. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DEMENTIA 13 cost as much a KOMODO and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, yet they set the genre on end and became icons in and of themselves, culminating in NIGHT being inducted into the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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When I'm sharing my macabre tales with my young friends, I love to watch their faces as the story goes on. Many times you'll see doubt begin to cross their expressions: Do I really want to listen to this? Is something terrible going to happen? Oh no! Her head came off! Once the story is over, of course, there's laughter and relief, and the usual claim, "That wasn't so scary!" Of course it isn't! Not anymore...

The greatest tribute any audience can offer to a Horror story or film is that it strips away the adult mentality and silences the critical faculties, and allows the inner child full romp and reign, shivering in its metaphorical bed as nightmares float past his window. (And I'll go further: this is true of any story or film; look at the enthusiastic reactions to movies as diverse as THE AVENGERS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and SILVERADO.) In the hands of a master storyteller (and I put aside all false modesty), the listener is absolutely absorbed in the narrative, and the most important thing in the world is not shopping for groceries on the way home, or the dental appointment later in the week, or RSVPing the birthday party at the neighbors: the single most important thing in the universe is what happens next?!?

(And conversely, in a boring story of film, those other concerns become the most important focus of your attention at that moment, and when will this movie or monologue end?)

To call this magical, almost hypnotic state "suspension of disbelief" is to do it a disservice. It isn't a suspension in the same manner that the Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge, a monolithic engineering marvel of steel. The suspension of disbelief, in the hands of a master entertainer, floats above you like a helium balloon carried on wayward wind currents; it's easily playable, and you can bat it across the room without any effort. (Of course, some balloons float better than others; this is true of stories and films as well. Some travel exquisitely, and others take some juggling skills to keep them airborne. This is also determined by the individual ability of the teller, author or director.)

When suspension of disbelief is at its best, we believe everything . Nothing can disturb it; not the ringing of a telephone or the tugging of your sleeve by your date asking you questions about the narrative, nor your legs falling asleep. True suspension of disbelief transcends anything that the natural world can throw at it.

Let's bear that in mind; we'll be coming back to it.

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It's no secret that the film industry is ever-changing in its use of technology. The official term for this is “state-of-the-art,” which simply refers to the latest developments in the techniques of filmmaking that affect what you see on the screen. Usually this term is used regarding special optical and makeup effects, but it's not limited to that by any means.

For instance, it was once impossible to film anything by actual candlelight, because the film stock simply wasn't fast enough to capture the images satisfactorily. What you would see as "candlelight" in movies was painstaking lighting of a shot to mimic candlelight, usually done on a soundstage because it would be easier to control the film environment. However, by the time Stanley Kubrick filmed BARRY LYNDON, film had advanced to the point where the stock was fast enough to film by actual candlelight, which is what Mr. Kubrick did.

During World War II, it became very expensive to film on location because of the drain of the war effort. Studios found it much simpler to recreate outdoor environments such as city streets, parks, woods, swamps and other locations on the soundstage. This is why so many films of that period feature scenery with paper-mache rocks and plastic leaves. Eventually the cost of filming on a soundstage became prohibitive for smaller budgeted productions (especially since the studios owned the soundstages and outsiders would have to rent the facilities). Therefore the low budget films used actual locations, creating the grainy esthetic that defined "independent productions" and continues to this day.

Back when Orson Welles was filming CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, he wanted to obtain long, sweeping, smooth pans that resulted in one long take, without any editing. (Perhaps his most famous of these is the opening of A TOUCH OF EVIL.) To accomplish this required huge cranes on large platforms and meticulous timing. Such a shot could take literally all day to set up and rehearse without achieving a worthwhile shot. Years later cameras were a little lighter, but still quite big and heavy; nevertheless, laying down rail tracks could achieve the  same long pan effect easier, and became a standard of film.

Years later, with the invention of the Steadicam (designed exclusively for the film MARATHON MAN to get the long smooth shots of Dustin Hoffman running), a lightweight camera that was strapped to the operator and balanced with gimbals for steadiness, the tracks went done away with. For scenes of Rocky running through the streets of Philadelphia in the movie of the same name, the operator simply sat on the tailgate of the truck preceding Rocky. And perhaps the most famous Steadicam shot in Horror is young Danny pedaling his Big Wheel tricycle through the endless halls of the Overlook Hotel in Mr. Kubrick's (again!) THE SHINING, a shot not possible with standard rail tracking. (Indeed, Mr. Kubrick embraced new technology enthusiastically in his filmmaking, believing it freed him to produce better films.)

Of course, necessity is often the mother of invention. When Sam Raimi couldn't afford to rent the Steadicam for his debut film THE EVIL DEAD, he simply bolted a standard camera to the end of a long two-by-four, and he and a companion (probably Bruce Campbell) ran like hell through the woods, achieving the same kind of sweeping, smooth shots that the Steadicam produced. (Mr. Raimi named his invention the "Shaki-Cam".) And today it's not uncommon for the least expensive video camera to have some kind of stabilizing system within its programming, allowing relatively smooth shots that were previously the domain if professional filmmakers.

Indeed, one of the most exciting (and occasionally frustrating) developments in state-of-the-art is the increasing sophistication of digital video media. It's produced a literal Gold Rush of young filmmakers getting their products before audiences. Gone were the days of waiting for development of "dailies" to find a usable shot, of not having access to theaters or distribution so that films could be in the hands of their intended audiences. With the digital revolution, professional-looking movies could be produced on a miniscule budget, even compared to the old guerilla filmmaking days of the 1960s and 70s. The upside? Anyone anywhere could be a filmmaker and make a movie. (The downside, of course, is that anyone anywhere can be a filmmaker and make a movie, but that's a discussion we've had in the past, and we'll leave it there for now...)

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State-of the-art also refers, not only to how movies are now filmed and released, but just as importantly, how audiences view these movies, and how they react to them. And this can be tricky. Because now we get into an area of individual taste.

Remember when I mentioned movies being filmed primarily in the studios? This was standard procedure, even for big budget movies. It was simply easier for artists to control their environment, to light each scene to the exact specifications required, and to produce the cleanest sound possible. Even movies that would take place primarily outdoors were filmed on soundstages. This was particularly true of musicals; it was much easier to produce the results desired. Thus SINGING IN THE RAIN, even the wonderful downpour of the title, was done in the studio, on the backlot where water could be pumped take after take without waiting for a genuine rainstorm. Scarlett O'Hara's plantation never saw the heat of the Atlanta day; it was created entire on the stage. The fantastic climactic battle between Captain Nemo and his crew and the giant squid? Filmed entirely in a water tank at Disney.

Now, audiences at the time saw nothing unusual about this; this was, after all, how movies were made, and what was expected. And their suspension of disbelief (remember that? I told you we'd get back to it) suffered not a bit. Even the mixing of outdoor footage and studio work didn't jar the average viewer; again, this was Hollywood; people believed what was on the screen because they always did. So the obvious staginess of the musical numbers in OKLAHOMA!, filmed on a soundstage with a panoramic painting in the background representing the surrounding countryside, mixed easily in the viewers minds with the footage filmed on location of cowboys roping and herding steers.

But today, having seen films, including musicals, shot entirely on location, recorded with the best possible sound despite ambient interference, some of these films look a bit strange. Take WEST SIDE STORY; much of the movie was filmed on the streets of New York, and the movie works beautifully there, with the grimy streets and back alleys resonating as completely realistic. But several scenes, such as the rooftop dance of the Sharks and their girls to "America", are obviously in-studio moments. (Probably because hauling a film crew up to the top of a genuine tenement would have been too difficult.) And although the scene is skillfully and wonderfully directed and filmed, the eye is drawn up by the artificial atmosphere that surrounds it, especially contrasting with the realism attendent to the rest of the movie. (Compare the musical number "Cool" - filmed in an actual garage, with its low concrete ceiling and echo - with the rumble under the highway, obviously filmed in the studio against a painting of a highway underpass.)

Another example, closer to our hearts in the genre. Val Lewton's CAT PEOPLE was filmed completely in studio, owing to the budget requirements and Mr. Lewton's desire to control the lighting and sound perfectly. (Probably more the former than the later, in all honesty.) There is a scene where a young lady is stalked down a city street at night by the were-panther. She walks through pools of light from the overhead streetlights into pools of black, and all the while her anxiety grows, for she feels something is following her. At the climax there is a hissing sound, and the audience jumps - only to discover the hissing is the airbrakes of the city bus stopping to pick the woman up, and not a leering wildcat as we suspected.

When I saw the film, I thought the moment worked splendidly. But Stephen King wrote in "Danse Macabre" that the scene didn't work for him at all; everything about it seemed artificial because it was filmed in the studio.

“As the camera moves with Ms. Randolph, everything surrounding her screams fake! fake! fake! to my eye. While I was supposed to be worrying about whether or not Jane Randolph was going to be attacked, I found myself worrying instead about hat paper-mache stone wall in the background. When the bus finally pulls up, the chuff of its airbrakes miming the cat's cheated growl, I was wondering if it was hard getting that New York city bus onto a closed soundstage and if the bushes in the background were real or plastic.”

He believed the later scene, where the woman is menaced in a basement pool, worked much better, and I agree. Mr. King doesn't call this "state-of-the-art", but coined the phrase, "set of reality", which is quite appropriate, and he uses several other examples that our senses simply don't accept today but where standard creative fare at one time. 

Remember the front yard of the Cartwrights on the TV series BONANZA? Entirely in the studio, complete with tree, grass, and painted mountain backdrop. I offer THE BRADY BUNCH; could any home truly be so spacious, even one of an architect? Could the Jupiter Two shell on LOST IN SPACE really host the multileveled interior? The corridors on the Enterprise on STAR TREK were built extra wide so that they had room for the cameras, in stark contrast to the ALIEN sets 13 years later that were purposely tight and claustrophobic to mimic actual conditions on a deep space ship (and, not incidentally, were exceedingly difficult to film in and around...)

STAR TREK is a prime example of the "set of reality", and concurrent suspension of disbelief. Young people laugh at the paper-mache rocks that bounce down during rockslides, and cave floors that are perfectly smooth. But audiences in the 1960s had no qualms about accepting the mines of Janus 6 as being exactly as they were represented, and the Styrofoam rocks produced not a snicker. That was filmed reality, and the audiences simply accepted it as such.

(Mr. King points out, quite correctly, that this in not a modern development; the "set of reality" has run into mental and physical speedbumps from audiences in times vast. Dramas in Shakespeare's time always played on a proscenium stage, with painted backdrop and scenery. When the era of modern staging, using theater-in-the-round and bare stages came into use, it was quite controversial and daring; now it's commonplace, ironically commonly in Shakespearean drama. Radio drama required a certain type of "descriptive narrative" writing that worked very well for audio plays and comedies; when movies began to gain ground the same type of writing continued, and many of the transitional movies and shows suffered stiltedness because of it, fearing to rely strictly on visuals.  

Early cinema also relied on the "proscenium", with many films stagebound simply because they were either unused to moving the camera about (as with the work of George Melies) or, after the advent of sound, because they needed complete silence in order to record properly. When the technology improved, some artists were unable to cope because their imaginations were too deeply locked into what they had always done. Compare the work of Tod Browning in DRACULA, with his long held Master and Two Shots carefully lit and staged as though the audience were sitting directly in front of the performers, and James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, where the camera moves about, dipping down for low angles to emphasize the towering Strickfaden sets and zooming in for close-ups drenched with deep shadows. Whale knew how to use his camera almost as another spectator, viewing the events on the screen and retelling them in a mad narrative that pushed emotional boundaries. As much as I enjoy DRACULA for the magnificent art direction and Mr. Lugosi's performance, it is a film I admire more than enjoy, whereas THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN still captivates.

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The 'set of reality' has definitely changed the way some view entertainment, both current and from times past. Remember ZARDOZ? Some people have difficulty taking films of a certain era seriously. And is that so wrong? It is, after all, a matter of taste in many cases; some people enjoy chocolate, and some vanilla.

But I fear that, instead of just reflecting the taste of the audience, some are using their reactions as critical measurements of past works, and I find that distressing, because the usual reaction seems to be that if modern audiences can't relate to a past film or television series or novel, we can simply update it for their tastes and sensibilities. Never mind trying to teach them how to appreciate a work of art on its own terms, we demand that the work be dragged into their set of reality, or it's dismissed.

Lord knows we've had more than enough terrible remakes of movies, some classic, some not very interesting to begin with. For some the reason behind the remake has been honorable; someone recognizes something artistic in a film that hasn't previously been sufficiently explored, and redoes the movie to bring these sensibilities to light. (The most common examples are David Cronenberg's THE FLY and John Carpenter's THE THING; it should also be noted that Alfred Hitchcock remade one of his own films, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, because he didn't think he'd gotten it right the first time.) The other reason is simply money, the bottom line. Somebody's wants to make revenue off a project and believes that by giving it an existing identity it will draw higher box office than a completely original project. Examples of these are too numerous to bear; take your pick. My head aches just thinking about it.

Now the apologists for many remakes often offer this excuse: "But no one likes black & white/silent/old films; w can do it much better today with advances in makeup and special effects and etc. etc. etc." In other words, the set of reality.

I suppose in some instances this may be valid. Count Gore De Vol has opined that new filmmakers have every right to remake the classic to attract an audience today that will better appreciate the advances of technology. If something from the past doesn't resonate, then remake it and let the new generation discover it for itself.

Now in theory this might make some sense. But it seems to me that only in the cinema is this sentiment addressed so fully. After all, nobody has yet commissioned Bruce Springsteen or Lady Gaga to rewrite Bach's concertos for today's' audiences. To the best of my knowledge nobody ever asked the late painter Thomas Kinkaide to create "Mona Lisa 2012". And no one has yet gone before the Bolshoi Ballet and urged them to restage "Swan Lake" with hip hop artists. Some things are respected as they are meant to be, and if somebody today doesn't appreciate the work, the general reaction is a shrug and an expression of sympathy; we're sorry you just don't get it.

As much as I protest the pointless remaking of perfectly good films, it is nothing compared to the outrage that greeted the reimagining of Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol" some months ago (you can learn more in my January 2012 Thoughts & Reveries Essay) or the sequalizations of "Dracula" and "Gone With The Wind" . And the times that there has been a logical reason for a modern revisit - say, the new BBC series SHERLOCK or the Leonardo DiCaprio ROMEO + JULIET - the writers and directors have shown a proper respect and reverence for the source material. Indeed, those works reverberate more powerfully the more familiar you are with the originals.

I feel we should in the least do the same with the genre we love so dearly. Perhaps there are flaws to be seen in some of the classic films and tales; perhaps the pacing isn't as brisk as current fare, and the threadbare seams of the budgets too commonplace. But many of these offer treasures that simply aren't found in some modern filmmaking, and at the very least can't we suggest, however gently, that some modicum of appreciation be attempted; that some additional gaining of knowledge might be beneficial to the tastes of the discriminating viewer? After all, if you want to develop a liking for truffles and pate de foie gras, you consume it several times to develop the taste buds, not simply once and proclaim that from this point on only McDonalds will suffice.

There's very little growth in that...

And furthermore, I believe that limiting yourself this way is merely observing the surface details. It can be easy to poke fun at fashions, special effects, stylized acting and the like. But too often the details beneath t surface are lost and rejected as well, thrown out with the bathwater, as it were.

The original CAT PEOPLE may not have had gore and special effects, nudity, or a soundtrack featuring David Bowie, but can anyone seriously argue that the original, as stilted as some dialogue may appear (I don't believe so) is the inferior? Did CGI and an enormous budget make THE HAUNTING remake ten times as terrifying?

DARK SHADOWS had primitive video effects, boom mikes that swung into frame, bats flying spastically on visible wires, and walls that shook when doors were slammed. However it also had a fevered imagination that ran rampant and overshadows the more sophisticated genre efforts of today (sorry X FILES and BUFFY fans, but true). It was a mad cornucopia of Gothic convention and atmosphere that the recent film couldn't purchase with its megabudget and Gorey-inspired art direction.

Was the American version of GODZILLA better because they didn't use men in rubber suits and spent much, much, much more money on FX? (This is an argument that you hear frequently from some younger filmgoers; their imaginative muscles have atrophied and they cannot suspend disbelief longer than a few seconds. But rather than redraw the playing field and lower expectations [i.e. 'remake'], why don't we insist they do a few pushups and leg lifts to bring those muscles back into shape?) Say what you will about the earlier movies, but along with their occasional silliness was a true sense of wonder at nature run amuck, of the myth of the towering behemoth holding humanity in its grasp, and the fragile structure of society against disaster. (Especially in the first movie, where the shadow of Hiroshima is overwhelming.)These are not my thoughts, but rather he musings of Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Roger Ebert.

Probably the best example is DOCTOR WHO, the single longest running SF series in television history. Originally a very low-budget program, through the years the effects and design became a little more and more sophisticated (due primarily to the advance of technology than any conscious creative endeavor, in all probability). After literally decades on the air, the show was finally cancelled, only to be revived several years ago as a filmed (rather than taped) series that uses state-of-the-art effects. The revival has been more popular than ever, and has been applauded as finally realizing the initial concept as it should have been. One fan praised the show that had been simply an imaginative children's show and was now a superior adult Science Fiction series.

But is it? Is the new DOCTOR WHO truly better than any that had gone before? Do effects and budget really define excellence in entertainment? Were the Daleks any less sinister on videotape? Were the alien worlds any less wondrous when they were filmed on location in a quarry? Where the storylines and arcs any less involving because they were stretched-out as four serialized 30 minute segments instead of one 60 minute episode?

Obviously I'm stacking the deck in my argument; I want you to answer vehemently No, they weren't! But some may disagree. Some may find the new high-end visuals and computer generated menaces much more believable, and therefore much more in tune with their set of reality. But hasn't DOCTOR WHO always been about the characters, both the Doctor (one of the most beguiling and iconic SF creations) and his companions? Don't we tune in to see the performances and watch the heroics of a lone champion against the malevolent forces of time and the known universe?

For the record, I found Tom Baker (as the fourth Doctor) and the mind-twisting storylines (written by, among others, Douglas Adams of "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy," Terry Nation of "Blake's 7," Louis Marks of "Danger Man" [ "Secret Agent" in America] and "Doomwatch," and Terrance Dicks of "The Baker Street Irregulars" ) as engaging as anything broadcast currently, and never minded if the set was made of paper-mache and duct tape and the aliens smelled of hot glue. Imagination captured me, and the Doctor captivated me, much as Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith do with current viewers.

And don't get me wrong; I enjoy the contemporary incarnation(s) of the Doctor immensely, and Amy Pond may be my favorite companion of all time. (**Heavy Sigh**) And I believe I would be following them just as enthusiastically if the alien worlds were all rock quarries, if the sets were paper-mache, and if the aliens smelled of hot glue.

Suspension of disbelief tops the set of reality, at least in my eyes. Occasionally they compliment each other, but given the choice, I'll bet on the former every time. And for those who are unable to keep their balls in the air, so to speak, with little effort, I can only recommend that they exercise a bit more…

Or, in the final, wise words of Mr. King (in his discussion of the use of imagination in radio drama):

“Of course, our modern ears pick up the necessary conventions of the medium that have been outgrown (mostly due to our growing dependence on the visual in our set of reality), but these were standard practices which audiences of the day had no trouble accepting (like Tourneur's paper-mache rock wall in CAT PEOPLE). If these conventions seem jarring to listeners [of today], as the asides in a Shakespearean play seem jarring to a novice playgoer, than that is our problem, to work out as best we can.”

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There is a story, probably apocryphal, but hopefully not; it's too perfect for it to be completely fiction. A gentleman was browsing through an art museum, looking at all the works of the past masters with a critical and jaundiced eye. Finally arriving at one particular painting (a Picasso? Seurat? I don't know) he stared at it for a long moment. Standing nearby was a museum guard and tour guide, watching the man.

After a moment, the man let out a sigh and said of the picture, to the room at large. “This doesn't look like much to me.”

The guard approached and spoke softly but firmly. “Sir; time has already rendered a judgment on the worth of this artwork, and found it a masterpiece. What is now being judged with each viewing is the reaction of the contemporary individual to the painting, and their ability to appreciate it.”

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JUNE
2012

 

Ray Bradbury is gone.

And yet...no. No, he isn't.

When someone of the standing of Ray Bradbury passes from this plane of existence, there is a genuine sense of loss and sadness. Truly the world has lost an artist of epic statue. There is no exaggeration in proclaiming Mr. Bradbury and original, and stating firmly that we will never see his like again. As Stephen King pointed out in his nonfiction tome "Danse Macabre," "When God made Ray Bradbury, he broke the mold."

Very true. Nobody wrote or writes today like Mr. Bradbury; nobody's stories touch the same level of magical realism, poignancy and humanitarianism than his. His tragedies were comic, and his comedies tragic, and you often finished a Bradbury tale with both a smile on your lips and a lump in your throat. Who else can accomplish that?

He was, and remains, THE face of Fantasy and Science Fiction to the world at large. He was and remains the mainstreaming of our beloved genre. People who have never read his work know of him; names of other giants in the field such as Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K LeGuin, Harlan Ellison, Clive Barker, Richard Matheson, Thomas Disch, Gene Wolfe, Ramsey Campbell, will receive a blank stare from the average individual. Mention the name Ray Bradbury, and the face lights up with recognition. And the absolute delight in this is that Mr. Bradbury has earned that position.

Want to argue?

Something Wicked This Way Comes. The Illustrated Man. Fahrenheit 451. The Martian Chronicles. Dandelion Wine. Homecoming. Mars Is Heaven. The Small Assassin. The October Game. Skeleton. The Veldt. All Summer In A Day. The Screaming Woman. A Sound Of Thunder. The Foghorn. I Sing The Body Electric. The Crowd. The Playground. Zero Hour. The Jar. Fever Dream. The Black Ferris. 

They roll off the tongue like a catechism, an honor guard to a master talespinner. Any author would probably be thrilled to have one or two of these to his credit. And these are simply some of his most celebrated; they don't even touch upon some of my personal favorites, as I'm certain there are several of your own I've not listed.

The term legacy is appropriate and fitting; truly if anyone has left a mark on the field of Literature, more specifically on the field of Fantastic Literature, it is Mr. Bradbury. The titles listed above will live long after more current, contemporary, popular and important authors are dust and forgotten.

And I suppose, for this reason, I can't completely feel the sadness that I thought I would on his passing. Yes, I'm sorry that we won't be seeing any more tales. yes, I'm sorry for his family, and I wish them comfort and kind thoughts.

In a way, I suppose I always thought that Mr. Bradbury was immortal; that he would never leave us, and we would always have him there to entertain and inspire us. And I still believe that today.

That list above is more than just titles of written work. They are immortality, conferred upon Ray Bradbury by the sheer blinding light of his talent. They will always be there for us, to read, reread, and most importantly, to pass along to others, younger readers who've never experienced his wonder. And I envy them greatly, those who are handed "The Martian Chronicles" for the first time with the immortal words, "Here, You've never read anything like this!"

And in that moment, Mr. Bradbury will live on again, longer than mortals and spectres can possibly imagine.

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I say this without any hyperbole. If it were not for Ray Bradbury, I and the Patient Creatures would never have existed. Or at least, not as you know us.

One of his greatest strengths was imparting humanity to that which was not human. In the faces of the doomed Martians, in the forlorn loneliness of the sea creature calling to the lighthouse foghorn, in the trials and tribulations of all manners of creatures that crawled, stalked, and gamboled through haunted houses and the dark October night, Mr. Bradbury always let us see the sorrows and joys and dreams and desires of the best (and, sadly, the worst) of what humanity is. And no creatures was too strange or too bizarre to not posses a heart worthy of love.

None of this was more apparently than with his tales of The Family, the immortal night creatures featured in many of his tales. They were first introduced in the story "Homecoming," about the annual gathering of the Family, and it's affect on Timothy, the young son who doesn't really fit with the rest of the family. As the story unfolds, we discover Timothy is "different", but not in the manner in which you first suspect. Timothy, it turns out, is completely normal, mortal in a family of witches, vampires and other assorted night creatures. But Timothy is not shunned by his family; he is loved dearly, somewhat pitied by all that he has no special powers. Timothy's heartbreak at being normal, and his family's unconditional love for him, turned the idea of monsters on its ear, and presented the unknown in a new light. The story, like many of Mr. Bradbury's tales, is at once heartwarming and heartbreaking.

In other stories we met other members of the Family. Timothy's sister Cecy, the "April Witch," who longs to know the feel of a lover's kiss so deeply that she steals the body of a mortal girl for one night of joy; "Uncle Einar," (one of my favorites), a bat-winged gentleman injured in an accident who can no longer fly at night, who finds a wholly satisfying and magical solution to his dilemma with the help of his wife and children. All Family members are presented as fully fleshed individuals, even if that flesh is cold and dead. We know and understand their wants, pettiness, moods, fears, needs, prejudices, and sadness, because they are a darkened reflection of what is inside every man, woman and child. No one has ever been better able to delve beneath the fangs, fur and claws to show the the soul beneath the skin of the monster.

The Patient Creatures and myself, also reflections of what is best and worst in humanity, exist well within the framework of Mr. Bradbury's themes and characterizations; we have always been aware of this, and felt a great kinship with his vision. One of the things that most excited me when traveling here to the West to settle onto the Lost Coast was that now I was much closer to Mr. Bradbury. I knew my wanderings and performances would one day take me down towards Southern California, and when that happened I would make a point of calling upon Mr. Bradbury, asking for his pardon and consideration of spending an afternoon with him, hoping to share tales of the Patient Creatures and simply thank him for all his efforts, to tell him, "We're carrying on in your tradition, and we hope to make you proud of us!"

Well, now, as so often happens, one day never comes; we put off for too long and sadly, it becomes too late. I never took the time to wander down to the Los Angeles area; I should have done so when I learned of Mr. Bradbury's failing health for the first time. But best laid plans, et al. I think that is what makes me saddest of all at this time; the missed potential to have met someone whose work I admired so dearly for so long. To shake his hand and smile and say, "I'm one of your creations, in a way. I'm one of your children, and I'm so happy to have connected with you!"

But in the end, all we have is our intentions. And though I never had that opportunity, I make it my pleasure to continue on as one of his step-children, and sharing his vision and philosophy with others as I go my way. I am proud to be an embodiment of what Mr. Bradbury did so well, and I know my fellow Creatures feel the same.

And on some other level of reality, I'd like to believe Mr. Bradbury is pleased as well.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Since his visit to Ireland while filming MOBY DICK with John Huston, Mr. Bradbury had an affection for the Irish people, so I think I can speak confidently when I say that what would please him the most at this time is not tears and mourning, but a good old-fashion Irish wake, filled with music, laughter, and carousing! (A fistfight or two wouldn't hurt either...) I think the last thing he'd want is a lot of sorrowful sniffling at his passing, but rather a celebration of his life and remembrance of his work, and what we loved best about him.

What did you love best about him? What were his favorite moments of yours?

Heavens, how much of a treasure we have to choose from! You can shout out your own choices, but here are some of mine:

"It was a pleasure to burn."


A time traveler hunting a Tyrannosaurus Rex, stepping on a butterfly, and changing millenia.

The mournful cries of a sea creature that thought the lighthouse foghorn was finally a mate to end centuries of loneliness.

His brother's voice was quite cold. "I said, where are you going"?" "For a drink of water." "But you're not thirsty..." “Yes, yes, I am.” “No, you're not.”

Parkhill taking target practice in the dead Martian cities, shooting out windows and shattering spires until Captain Wilder knocks his teeth out.

"It was a warm afternoon in September when I first met the Illustrated Man."


The carousel that goes round and ages you one year for every turn, or causing you to grow younger when ridden in reverse. (But first it was a Ferris wheel...)

"The crescent moon I have marked on the bullet is not a crescent moon. It is my own smile. I have put my smile on the bullet in the rifle."

The final chilling lines of "The October Game." "Then…some idiot turned on the lights."

"Besides a dinosaur, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

"Gotcha!"

Montague versus the Mechanical Hound.

The alien invaders arriving at dinnertime in "Zero Hour."

The crowd appearing at the scene of any automobile accident.

Aunt Tildy, refusing to lie down and play dead even after the autopsy.

From the film, Charles Halloway smashing his hand through the glass of the Hall of Mirrirs to reach into the river to rescue his son Will.

Hell is the corner of a playground populated by small children.

The eerie bargain of Mr. Moundshroud: “Will each of you give one year from the end of your life, boys?...With one year apiece you can ransom dead Pipkin.” And their wonderful answer: “Me! “Me! “Me!” said all the rest.

Dog turned. The bedroom door whispered in. Martin had company.

Tom Carmody, shivering in the summer night, staring in at the jar.

Outside in the sycamore darkness, the little man pierced a long white stick with intermittent holes; then, softly, sighing, his lips puckered, played a little sad tune upon the improvised instrument to accompany the shrill and awful singing of Clarisse's voice as she stood in the living room.

William Stendahl recreating the House of Usher before bringing down on the heads of the government censors.

The final fate of Mr. Codger, and his last words: “A short, sad life for both of you!”

They unlocked the door, even more slowly, and let Margot out.

The night meeting between Tomas Gomez and the Martian.

Tomorrow would be Christmas, even while the three of them rode to the rocket port the mother and father were worried.

Tom stood before the painting and looked at it for a long time…”But,” said Tom, slowly, “she's beautiful!”

“Now look what you've done,” said Sam a moment later. “You've broken my mirror.”

“If we ever get rich,” said Martinez softly, “it'll be kind of sad. Then we'll all have suits. And there won't be no more nights like tonight…”

Benjamin Driscoll growing a forest overnight.

The Emperor turning the key to the music box.

“Just walking , Mr. Mead?” “Yes.” “But you haven't explained for what purpose.” 

The lions on three sides of them, in the yellow veldt grass, padding through the dry straw, rumbling and roaring in their throats. The lions.

“Oh, the Good Time has come at last, To Mars we are a-going, sir, Five Thousand Women in the sky, That's quite a springtime sowing, sir!”

When I hit the atmosphere, I'll burn like a meteor.

Turning the boy invisible, but not really…

"Will we meet again, Mr. Moundshroud?" "Many years from now, yes, I'll come for you."

“Now I'm going to show you the Martians,” said Dad. “Come on, all of you. Here, Alice .” He took her hand. 

As I said, these are some of mine. If they're yours as well, help yourself. If you have others, pass them around...

* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Mr. Bradbury has been criticized quite often for his "lazy science." I think that's folly; he never claimed to be a Science Fiction writer; he preferred the label "Fantasy". The tag "The Greatest Living Science Fiction Writer" was applied by publishers and publicity men. He cared nothing for science, and everything for humanity. The devices - robots, spaceships, time machines, marvelous inventions, computers - were simply tools and devices for his characters to use and explore. They exited, like cars and trains and radios and television. Nobody stops a story in mid-telling to explain the theory the atomic power when submarines are the vehicles of choice. As Stephen King was said, "If you want to know how rockets work, read Heinlein. If you want to know about the people manning the rockets, read Bradbury."

Above all else, Mr. Bradbury was a writer of social issues. he used his fiction to explore the issues of the day, and to confront some hard truths about society and humanity. His most famous, of course, is probably his stands against censorship, anti-intellectualism and conformity in "Fahrenheit 451." But there are so many other issues he though to speak on.

Long before there was any discussion about "Black Rage" or "White Guilt" , Mr. Bradbury was penning "The Great Black & White Game" from  "The Golden Apples Of The Sun"  and "Way In The Middle Of The Air" from "The Martian Chronicles." Long before it became common for young people to attack their families or parents kill their children, he wrote "The October Game," "The Veldt" and "The Small Assassin." He explored ecology with "A Sound Of Thunder." “Sun And Shadow” explored the exploitation and commercialization of ethnicity, while “The Wonderful ice Cream Suit” and “I See You Never” touched on the immigrants experience in a place that could be welcoming or hostile, depending on the whims of those who came before.He railed against government abuse of power in "The Pedestrian" and "The Flying Machine," and brought the scale of nuclear annihilation down to the personal with "The Garbage Collector" and "There will Come Soft Rains." And of course, “The Martian Chronicles” is an allegory of man's settlement in a new land and replacing the indigenous culture.

And though his politics did seem to become more conservative in his later years, he warned against senseless violence, war, man's inhumanity to man and attempts to restrict the individual's freedom in the name of expediency.

One of his most powerful yet unsung tales was another Martian story not originally included in "The Martian Chronicles." Titled "The Other Foot," it told of a future time when the entire Black population of earth had settled on Mars, to escape bigotry and intolerance. having fashioned their own society, they receive a message that there has been a devastating war on earth, and the survivors wish to resettle on mars. And by the euphemism "survivors" it's understood that the settlers will be White.

A young firebrand, still fueled by his rage at the injustices done on earth in times past, declares a new order of things: White Only water fountains, Whites riding the back of the bus, No Whites diner counters. This will be an opportunity for payback!

But when the first White man arrives to plead for mercy, the young man is struck by how helpless and weary he looks, and how miser is etched into his features. When they ask about which places on earth have been destroyed, the answer is simple: everything. Everything is gone, there's nothing left. Selma , Alabama , Mississippi , all the places that held such memories of abuse and hatred had been wiped from the earth. And with their destruction, the young Black man feels his hatred melt and fade as well. he welcomes the new settlers, seeing each for the first time as individuals, and offering compassion.

I think compassion for his species was the greatest gift Mr. Bradbury offered, along with his talents.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *


The name of those inspired by Ray Bradbury is long and varied, encompassing all walks of life. Not only writers, but other artists, architects, musicians, and creative individuals of every stripe fell under his spell. Walt Disney was a long and well-known admirer; Mr. Bradbury helped create some of the exhibits found at Disneyland (a place that he found especially enchanting). Ray Harryhausen and Forrest J. Ackerman were long-time close companions. Authors Charles Beaumont and George Clayton Johnson were part of the group of Southern California writers that were actively mentored by Mr. Bradbury.

And the writers. How many owe their passions and allegiance to him? Stephen King has stated flatly, "Without Ray Bradbury there would be no Stephen King." His tales "Suffer The Little Children" and “Here There Be Tygers” are set well within Mr. Bradbury's wheelhouse. Harlan Ellison has long made his esteem for Mr. Bradbury public, and his fables "Jeffty Is Five," "Paladin Of The Lost Hour," and "With Virgil Oddum At The East Pole" echo some of Mr. Bradbury's rhythms and sensibilities.

And Rod Serling certainly knew how indebted he was to Bradbury's influence; he long proclaimed him as his favorite author. Both worked in the area of social commentary through their fiction, and more than once Mr. Serling offered a tip of his hat to Mr. Bradbury in his TWILIGHT ZONE scripts, referring to "Dr. Bradbury" in "Walking Distance" and "The Bradbury Account" in "A Stop At Willoughby," two tales particularly Bradburyesque. he also persuaded Mr. Bradbury to write three scripts for the series; sadly, only one, "I Sing The Body Electric" was ever filmed. (The others were shelved owing to various reasons, including budgetary constraints.)

Years later, Mr. Bradbury would again be called to lend his talents to  THE TWILIGHT ZONE ; two of his stories were featured on the 1980s revival. One was an adaptation of his short story "The Burning Man," and one was an original script called "The Elevator." I'll let my human companion Bob share his memories of the latter episode...

I was very eager to see the story, because it was an original script by Bradbury. I sat down, knowing absolutely nothing about it, and enjoyed the tale of two brothers whose father is conducting a secret experiment in a private laboratory. The piece is very short; about 15 minutes total, told without commercial break.

15 minutes after the story began, I leapt to my feet and began pacing the room, my heart pounding and the adrenaline flowing after one of the most unexpected and nastiest punchlines I'd seen in some time. I was completely taken off guard, and I was terrified! What a terrific gutpunch of a tale!

You know, people think of Ray Bradbury, and they often remember his sentimental stories, his whimsical, gentle fantasies. When they think of his Horror tales, they tend to remember his brooding, October-tinged mood stories that delivered shivers. They forget that he began his work with "Weird Tales" and often had his stories adapted for EC Comics. When he wanted to, he could deliver an absolute two-by-four right between the eyes of throat-clutching horror that would rock your senses! he could be as bloodthirsty as anyone, and that episode proved that even though he was known for his quieter side, he could still deliver.

Indeed he could; modern scribes, artists and filmmakers take note.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *


I don't want to deify Mr. Bradbury; it isn't fair to bury an artist with too much praise anymore than to do it with too little. Yes, he had his faults, as some commentators are now enumerating. yes, some of his late work paled in comparison to his earlier, more golden days. Yes, he was ill-used by the television and film industry. So be it, we're all (or most of you, anyway) only human.

What Mr. Bradbury did was create magic. He'd often told the story of his enthrallment with carnivals and sideshows (which birthed "Something Wicked This Way Comes") , and he's told of his love for the great Harry Blackstone. He adored and was fascinated by magic, and magic is what he created. Without special effects, without smoke and mirrors, without misdirection, he simple created magic, finding it in the world around him and tilting reality a bit to show it to everyone.

Even his most naturalistic tales had the sense of otherworldliness and the fantastic. "The Fruit At The Bottom Of The Bowl" is an exploration of the guilt-wracked conscience, but in its protagonist's attempts to wipe away every possible smudge of fingerprints that might be at the crime scene, it descends to depths of the macabre that would do Edgar Allen Poe proud. His examinations of life in small town America , along the beaches of Mexico , in the hills of Ireland achieve a magic realism that compares easily with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorges Luis Borges. Indeed, "Dandelion Wine" is obstensively about growing up in a small town in Illinois , but the landscape of childhood is etched with faerie magic and mystery. The rituals of buying a new pair of sneakers, riding a bike, lying in tall summer grass, become under Mr. Bradbury's prose as rich and enchanting as traversing the Yellow-Bricked Road to Oz or stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia.

Mr. Bradbury wrote of magic simply because he believed in it, in everyday wonders and miracles. There was no escape from reality in his tales; reality was phantasy, if looked at through the wide, mesmerized eyes of childhood and imagination. That's why his features remained so young in photographs, even as he grew older and was dogged by health issues. If the eyes are indeed the mirrors to the soul, Mr. Bradbury's soul was a wonderland where Alice would have enjoyed taking tea. 91 years is a fine long life, comparable to Edward Gorey, the other spiritual stepfather of the Patient Creatures and myself.

Both are now gone, sadly. But both are immortal. Magic works that way, you know; it will always be with us, as long as we keep it in our hearts and want it so. I believe both will be living a good long time after the lesser of us have shuffled from our mortal coil.

What wonders will he have waiting for all who meet him again on that other plain? So good to see you! Have a seat! Have I got a story for you...!

* * * * * * * * * * * * *


One final anecdote; my favorite Bradbury tale, and so fitting for a final nod. Please forgive my paraphrasing; I first heard the story from one who heard it from Mr. Bradbury.

Mr. Bradbury had always loved the Disney version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND . From when he was a boy he had a crush on Alice, and when he saw the Disney film he fell in love all over again with her blond hair, blue eyes and English accent. As he grew older, even though he loved his wife dearly, he still carried a torch for the beautiful Alice.

When Disneyland opened he attended often, and one day when he was there he walked towards the entrance, and there at Cinderella's castle was the beautiful Alice in the flesh. And he said, "She was as lovely as I ever hoped for; blond hair, blue eyes, a sweet and lovely smile, and my heart soared at seeing her."

He was so overcome with joy he ran over towards her and stopped a distance away. Throwing his arms wide, he smiled and called to her. " Alice In Wonderland!"

And Alice looked up, smiled, threw her arms wide, and called out, "Ray Bradbury!" And ran into his arms.

Magic.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

MAY
2012

 

Let us speak of guilty pleasures.

But before we do, we probably need to define what a "guilty pleasure" actually is. Because I'm not certain we're all on the same page.

Some define it as something so "bad" that it's actually "good"; and are usually referring to movies. I can't agree; I find nothing "good" in a bad movie, and I still harbor grudges against the creators of THE HOWLING PART TWO, TWIN PEAKS : FIRE WALK WITH ME and THE PHANTOM MENACE for the loss of hours that I will never regain in this lifetime. For myself, a "bad" work of art is simply bad.

Granted there are times when I will read or see something that is so outrageously terrible that the scale almost flips over end and becomes near masterpiece, but that is purely an emotional reaction of incredulity, and should never be mistaken for finding merit. My own personal litmus test is a short story I read some time ago (no, I won't name the story or author; that wouldn't be fair, as they are not present to defend themselves). As I continued on page after page, I thought my eyes were going to crawl from their sockets in protest and I felt my brain begin to slowly twist into yoga positions unimagined. Worse, I began to giggle. But as entertained as I was by this spectacle (in much the same manner of fascination audiences reserve for freak shows, I presume), at no time did I believe I was seeing anything other than bad, bad, bad prose; so bad it should have been grounded for two weeks and sent to bed without supper.

No, it seems to me that if you're actually enjoying a work of art, be it movie, play or book, there must be something worthwhile about it, something that connects to the reader or audience; something that makes it "good", even if it doesn't compare with other works that have received general and critical acclaim and recognition.

For instance, many site the Godzilla movies as examples of "guilty pleasures". They look at the actors in rubber suits stomping on miniatures of a Tokyo suburb, and feel ashamed at being entertained by the spectacle. But bury that shame, my Friends! Overcome it! The Godzilla films are entertaining, and no apology should be offered for their enjoyment. They certainly don't fall into the same category as SCHINDLER'S LIST, JAWS, GONE WITH THE WIND or A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but they are doubtlessly watchable, much more so than some of their "serious" and "artistic" contemporaries.

(And I do want to talk about the audiences that enjoy the Godzilla movies, or the DARK SHADOWS televisions series; those that overlook the technical deficiencies for the entertainment value of the work, but I will save that for next month.)

In viewing these films or reading these tales, I'm also usually aware of the author or filmmakers intent. And it's also true that I'm much more generous with a low-budget movie that tries to be amazing, as opposed to an expensive film that settles for just being OK. Quite honestly, when you've spent hundreds of millions of dollars and the audience reaction is simply, "it was all right," I think you're dropped the ball. Considering the costs of AVATAR or ATTACK OF THE CLONES or WATERWORLD, where technicians and artists and (presumably) actors and writers and directors are working at the top of their game and spending fistfuls of cash, you'd better have a final product worthy of being sealed in a time capsule. If you don't, my annoyance level increases with every dollar.

But with a lower budget affair, I'm much more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Many times an artist will try to achieve a work that is overly ambitious and will come up short for one reason or another. If the effort is worthy and the results entertaining, I will applaud the attempt and overlook the shortcomings. There's no guilt involved in enjoying these efforts; far better to try and exceed your grasp and fall down than play it safe and never try to rise above the bland.

The work of Art (yes, with a capital A) that prompted these thoughts is the movie ZARDOZ . It will be playing on Wednesday, May 9 at our local art and second run movie theater, the Arcata Theater Lounge. And I intend to be there, enjoying every minute of it, because I think ZARDOZ is a splendid film. Coincidentally, my HorrorHost companions the Cleavers (Butch E. and Joan) of MEAT CLEAVER THEATER have chosen to run ZARDOZ as their film this month. During his introductory trailer for the movie, Butch offered the common opinion that ZARDOZ was a cheesy SF wannabe spectacle from the 1970s era of drug-fueled cinema, and offered ZARDOZ as a prime example of the cinematic guilty pleasure, "so bad it's good".

Now, I disagree with that, and emailed Butch expressing the sentiment that ZARDOZ was a wonderfully imaginative work of allegory and fable, well-acted and written and beautifully filmed. I thought it was a successful SF movie that was thought-provoking and powerful. Butch was intrigued, and asked me to someday expand on my thoughts.

You need but ask, my Friend...

ZARDOZ is the creation of John Boorman, a filmmaker I've long admired. Among his genre works are the classics DELIVERANCE and EXCALIBUR and the less than classic is his sequel EXORCIST TWO: THE HERETIC;  the terrific gangster film POINT BLANK, a fine adaptation of John le Carre's THE TAILOR OF PANAMA, and a lovely autobiographical film called HOPE AND GLORY , about growing up in London during the Blitz of World War II, which I recommend wholeheartedly. (He also was responsible for the Dave Clark Five film HAVING A WILD WEEKEND, their answer to the Beatles A HARD DAY'S NIGHT. Taking about a guilty pleasure...)

As you can see from his resume, Mr. Boorman is hardly Ed Wood Jr. He is a consummate and committed artist and filmmaker, and his overall work is worthy of whatever stumbles he may suffer along the route. ZARDOZ was made after DELIVERANCE, and after Mr. Boorman failed to bring his THE LORD OF THE RINGS project to the screen. Still in a Tolkien frame of mind, he decided to create an original SF/Fantasy effort.

ZARDOZ is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, although that is itself a misnomer; there was no atomic war or plague that decimated the earth. It's implied that the world and society simply fell apart and reverted to barbarism. There are tribes of slaves that till and work the land growing food; these are controlled by the Brutals, who keep the workers in check with violence. All are under the watchful eye of Zardoz, the great stone head god that makes pronouncements to the Brutals and rewards them with weapons for the food they offer. Life goes on in this same way as it has for decades.

Until Zed, played by Sean Connery, stows aboard the stone head and realizes that Zardoz is not a god, but a vessel; it carries him to the Vortex, an invisible wall that surrounds a peaceful elite community of the Eternals, a stagnant village of debauchery and ennui. The Eternals are intrigued by Zed and decide to make a pet of him, but Zed is not the mindless barbarian they believe him to be; he has a hatred of the Eternals  and a plan to bring down the society.

Not a bad setup, eh? Certainly no worse than any other sword and sorcery epic. And Mr. Boorman is working fully in the realm of allegory; everything within the movie has double meaning, including the title, which reveals one of the secrets of the Eternals and sets Zed on his path of retribution. And this perhaps is one reason modern audiences find ZARDOZ difficult to relate to; it is a very solemn, serious film, perhaps overly so, without much humor except a black streak. It's very sincere, and although I admire sincerity we do live in a society filled with ironic detachment and snark. We are also working in allegory, which can fall easily apart under examination. (How many parodies have there been of Bergman or Fellini films with their cries of symbolism!)

ZARDOZ is also very much a product of the 1970s school of mysticism; people were experimenting with alternate forms of consciousness, not all of it drug inspired. They were exploring eastern philosophy, Zen, meditation, sensory deprivation, and other forms of mind expansion (yes, including chemical). ZARDOZ is squarely in this metaphysical realm, and much of what was intriguing in the past now can appear a bit silly. (Modern audience chuckle during the scene in the documentary WOODSTOCK when an MC exhorts the audience from the stage that, if they all work together, they can chant away the threatening rainstorm. Yes, naive and simplistic, to be sure, but people truly did believe in such possibilities at the time, and I don't think we can blame ZARDOZ if we've moved a bit beyond that.)(Although residing in Humboldt County , with its justifiably famous cash crop and conclave of True Believers, ZARDOZ probably isn't as dated as it may appear elsewhere...)

There is also the costume and production design; much is made of Sean Connery's red spandex shorts, and the clothing and decor of the Eternals. I'll not defend them; they've never bothered me , but extrapolating futuristic or phantastic fashions and art design is always a difficult endeavor, more often destined to failure than success. Even 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY   to some extent looks a bit dated with the severe cut of Dr. Floyd's business suit and the space stewardess's bubble helmet. Still, what can you do? We can learn to appreciate the Elizabethan dress for a production of Shakespeare, and the fashion sense of  1920s Chicago for THE UNTOUCHABLES , and nobody every complained about Malcom McDowell and companions' long underwear in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE , so the heck with it all...

All of the above I will gladly stipulate for the court. But beyond these trappings, I still maintain ZARDOZ is a thoughtful and fascinating allegory of the Haves and Have-Nots that should ring even more loudly for today's audiences.

(I should warn you that I'm about to unleash quite a few spoilers; if you haven't seen the film but are curious, I recommend you put this aside until after you've watched it.)

Even for the 1970s, ZARDOZ was not an extravagantly budgeted film; the final cost was around one million dollars. As it was filmed in Ireland , I'm certain there were tax breaks for the production that allowed the costs to be stretched further; still because there was little budgeted for special effects, it was not designed for spectacle, but shot with misdirection and suggestion. Rather than work against the film, I believe they compliment the tale where more polished visuals would overwhelm an admittedly fragile narrative. The imagery is beautiful, and the Irish countryside as breathtaking as ever, even when representing a wasteland. (The film was photographed by the late, legendary cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who also photographed 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A BRIDGE TOO FAR, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY and SUPERMAN, among others.) Still, the movie turns on the performances and ideas instead of the FX. (Although watching the giant stone head floating over the blasted heats and vomiting hundreds of automatic rifles for its worshippers is quite striking.)

The closest parallel to Mr. Connery's character of Zed would probably be another barbarian, Conan; both rough but intelligent men making their way through a fantastic world; each skilled and trained in the nature of violence. But Zed is not a brainless killing machine; in a series of scenes he discovers the ruins of a library, and slowly begins to learn to read, devouring book after book day after day. The character of a ruthless brute with the mind of a professor is a wonderful conceit; throughout the early part of the movie we mistake Zed for the sullen and thoughtless hulk the Eternals believe him to be. But as we learn of him in flashback, see him studying the great works of literature, he becomes the embodiment of the self-made intellectual, physically and mentally at his peak performance. All he lacks is a spiritual growth, and it is this that he learns from his time inside the Vortex. The irony being that the more he learns from the great spiritual computer that runs the community, the better able he is to defeat it. 

The Eternals are presented as immortals bored with everyday existence. They watch the barbarity of the Brutals as a bread and circus entertainment, and devise new pleasures of sexual and mystical sensation to offset the terrible tedium of a sterile life without death. Indeed, some of the Eternals, most notably Friend, Zed's first true companion, long for a death that can never come to placate the unendurable forever they are sentenced to.

At the time, this was not as science fictional as it appears today. We take for granted the miracles of medicine from the last thirty years which allows us to replace organs at will, reattach severed limbs, create bionic prosthetics for lost body parts that work better than the biological originals, and has increased the average lifespan. At the time of ZARDOZ, it wasn't uncommon for fifty years to be though of as "old"; now fifty-year-olds are considered middle-aged and full of a vitality that wasn't present in the 1970s. The concern of where this longevity was heading was enormous, and the ethics of expanding lifespans in a time of increasing overcrowding and population growth was one of the issues debated vigorously. Indeed, in the world of ZARDOZ overpopulation was one of the downfalls of society; disease and hunger decimated the cities while the Eternals stayed safe behind their force field walls of the Vortex. But their immortality came at a cost of their humanity; their empathy, and finally their advancement as individuals and a society.

One of Zed's most outspoken opponents among the Eternals is Consuella. She sees Zed initially as a sexual plaything, but she warns that Zed will bring the outside world into the Vortex and destroy them. Consuella is a cold person, sexually unsatisfied despite her appetite. Like the other Eternals, her pursuits are never enough to offset the emptiness of her existence. She is disgusted by Zed, but intrigued by him simply because he is so alive; his abilities and passions are too enticing to refuse, and Consuella is finally drawn to this total man because he represents freedom from oppression.

And that, finally, is what Zed is there to do: free the Brutals from the worship of Zardoz. But inside the Vortex he finds himself the Eternals champion as well; he can free them from their misery and awaken the long dormant vitality within them. And perhaps, provide them with their greatest desire: death.

Among its other strengths, I find ZARDOZ an excellent character study of a rugged individual who suddenly has the fate of the world thrust upon him. Zed's fury at the Eternals (and I'll keep that source a secret for the nonce) is tempered by his realization that they are as much enslaved as the Brutals. Instead of bearing vengeance, Zed must bring compassion to those who once thought him little more than a beast of the field. I find Mr. Connery truly heroic in his role, a three-dimensional characterization that is often lacking in cinematic SF. (Indeed, all the performers  -  Charlotte Rampling as Consuella, John Alderton as Friend, Niall Buggy as Zardoz himself., with a sharply sardonic opening monologue  -  acquit themselves quite well, considering that for the most part they are playing symbols in Mr. Boorman's allegory.)

All right...with it's phantasmagorical and spiritual themes, this film can definitely be considered a product of its time. But even if it's as worthy a work of Art as I've put forward, why should it speak to anyone today?

The mood of the country can currently be described as despairing; the economy is still fragile, unemployment is still quite high, corruption in the seats of power has become commonplace. Worse, there are those below the poverty line who risk losing everything they have and never being given the chance to recover and prosper. The gap between wealthy and poor is greater now than in any other time; the wealthiest seem to possess no empathy for those below their station, and turn a blind eye to their own excesses. The division has been described politically and culturally as the 99% versus the 1%, and the majority are becoming angrier.

ZARDOZ is one extrapolation of this current mood. The Eternals blocked themselves off from the sufferings of the world around them, and showered themselves with the status symbols of privilege. (There is an astonishing moment towards the middle of the movie as we see how the situation arose: a group of elite individuals eat at an outdoor table, oblivious to the disheveled, suffering crowd just behind them beating their fists against the invisible wall of the Vortex. The dirty faces of the men, women and children linger in the memory, as does the casual cruelty of the Eternals.)

If society is to continue and flourish it cannot be divided, and humanity cannot close its collective eyes to those in need. There is an invisible wall between the Haves and Have-Nots, but it is far more fragile than the privileged would care to believe. (I offer into evidence the French Revolution.) And, as ZARDOZ demonstrates very well, the life the elite seek can often be its own Hell; a place of emptiness and quiet desolation to match the blasted landscape beyond the walls. No society can survive that feeds off the lower class; at some point even men of little conscience have to face themselves in the mirrors of their souls. As Robert Bloch pointed out powerfully in his short story "The Cheaters" (made into a memorable episode of the THRILLER televisions series), if humanity could actually see deep into its souls at what it really looks like, how many could face the image and maintain their sanity?

But ZARDOZ doesn't offer only doom and gloom. At the heart of the film is an optimistic message, very much a part of the modern Occupy movement: that one individual; a thinking, courageous man (or woman) can bring the whole corrupt society toppling down if he wishes, and turn the world on its ear. I find it very appropriate that Mr. Connery, whose roles have ranged from James Bond to King Arthur, should portray such character; the weight and strength he gives to his performance makes Zed iconic, and rightly so.

If we look beyond the budget limitations and the sense of time that ZARDOZ is definitely part of, we see a universal fable of the individual rising up,  the balance restored to the universe. You can smile at the fashions or the earnestness of the dialogue, but the themes of ZARDOZ are extremely weighty for simply a "cheesy sci-fi film".

A guilty pleasure? I don't believe so; I never felt one iota of guilt for enjoying this movie, and I don't think anyone else should either.

And next time, I want to look further into what is commonly known as "suspension of disbelief", and look at a few other "cheesy" examples of the genre. I hope when we're through you'll be seeing them from a different point of view, wearing very different eyes as well...

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

APRIL
2012

 

There's a film out getting a great deal of critical attention. It's called WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, and it seeks to give some insight into the family dynamic of a troubled teenager whose instigated a violent attack that parallels the Columbine tragedy. The film stars Tilda Swinton as the mother of Kevin, who from a young age was apparently a menacing and dangerous presence in her house and the neighborhood at large. Note that I say "apparently"; I haven't seen the film myself, because it's been released on a very limited basis, city by city, and it arrived here on the Lost Coast for only a week before moving on.

Several critics have praised the film as "horrific" and "insightful". Roger Ebert gave it four stars in his glowing review; Anne Hornaday of the Washington Post called it a "thoughtful, unnerving film"; Catherine Bray of Film4 said it was "A meaty, full-fat, marrow-rich, extra-pulp vision of the nightmare side of motherhood..." and Mike Scott of the Times-Picayune named it "An unconventionally structured but thoroughly riveting indie drama, propelled by a searing performance..." It currently boasts a 78% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes site.

But not everyone was enthralled by the movie; Rotten Tomatoes includes some critical pans of the film. But none approached the movie in quite the same manner as my human companion Shane Dallmann. For the uninitiated, Mr. Dallmann can be found HorrorHosting movies as his alter ego Remo D on REMO D'S MANOR OF MAYHEM on AMP Monteray Public Access Channel 24. In his other guise he is an incredibly knowledgeable film historian with a particular emphasis on Horror and Exploitation films. His reviews can be found in magazines such as "HorrorHound," "Video Watchdog," and "Screem". Although I've sometimes disagreed with his conclusions, I've never found him to be less than thought-provoking, and have never been disappointed in allowing him to sway me towards a particular film I was on the fence about viewing.

You can click HERE to read Mr. Dallmann's review of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. Take a moment to peruse it, and then I have some thoughts to share about our genre.

Welcome back!

To call our field of interest a tightly-knit community is an understatement. Fans of Horror (as well as fans of Science Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Western and other literary subdivisions) are passionate about their preferences, and extremely protective of their artists. Because higher echelon critics have been known to ignore our field, we trumpet loudly the names of those who have contributed to the genre we love, and are prepared to defend these artists to the death. In book form we revere the names of Lovecraft, Poe, King, Barker, Leiber, Matheson, Serling, Campbell , Lansdale , Bradbury, et al. In film our icons include carpenter, Romero, Cronenberg, Craven, Hitchcock, Lewis, Argento and numerous up-and-coming talents who've begun to make their marks: McKee, Wan & Whannell, Roth, and Aja. We expound on their talents and protect them fiercely against outside criticism.

This isn't a bad thing, although occasionally it does blind fans to some faults of the lesser works of genre favorites. (But that's a topic for an entirely different essay!) However, there is also some initial reluctance to acknowledge successful efforts from those that can be termed "outsiders in the Horror field.

There is naturally suspicion that a new voice has the understanding of the rich heritage that the genre encompasses; as I've mentioned before, the archetypes Horror and the Dark Fantastic have proven irresistible to artists as diverse as Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, and far too many others to name. Many of these authors are embraced by the fans because their works in the field are so iconic and visionary that we have no difficulty drawing them into our inner circle.

Complicating this a bit are some artists that work primarily in the genre but for various reasons don't want to label themselves a "Horror Writers" or artists. Quite often this is because they don't want to limit themselves to one subject, or they don't want the outside world to prejudge or pigeonhole them. Among the most vocal is Harlan Ellison, who insists on not being called a "Science Fiction Author"; he is simply "An Author", and he will write any damn thing he pleases. This in spite of the fact that I would judge better than 80 percent of Mr. Ellison's fiction fits comfortably into the SF/Speculative Fiction category. The same can be said of Anne Rice, Michael Crichton, Ira Levin, and William Peter Blatty.

Again, there's absolutely nothing wrong with defining yourself and not letting others define you, but here is the irony: although these authors have produced exemplary work, there is often a distrust and backlash in the community. Why don't they want to be associated with us? What's wrong with us? Are they ashamed of us? What nerve! And people grow defensive on both sides of the issue.

There's the added corollary that sometimes artists in the genre want to stretch themselves and create works that are bigger then the genre is used to. Often these works, by established giants in the field, are quite controversial. The common refrain to greet he efforts is "This isn't like anything he/she's done before!", which was how "Stranger In A Strange Land" was initially received. But this also is a subject for another essay...)

And then there are artists that are not genuinely considered members of the community, but do such exemplary work that they make an indelible impression. Joyce Carol Oates is certainly not considered a “Horror Writer” as Stephen King, but her work is filled with ghosts, hauntings, tensions, violence, and terrors that befall so many. Isaac Bashevis Singer is another; his work is filled with demons and devils, spectres and terrible creatures, but he's not considered in the same breath as Lovecraft. Perhaps my personal favorite is John D. McDonald; known primarily for his crime thrillers and Travis McGee mysteries, he has authored some truly wonderful SF, including “Ballroom In The Skies” and “The Girl, The Gold Watch, And Everything.”

Sometimes these “outsiders” contribute seminal works to the genre. Three examples:

Rod Serling was known mostly for his contemporary dramas PATTERNS and REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT before he created THE TWILIGHT ZONE. But he was always a huge fan of the field (his favorite authors were Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke) and some of his earlier teleplays touched on the fantastic, including the “unofficial” TWILIGHT ZONE pilot “The Time Element” broadcast on Desilu Playhouse. He also was wise enough to go back to the stories that thrilled him and adapted them for his series; THE TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT GALLERY boasted tales from respected masters in the field as Jerome Bixby, Damon Knight, Fritz Leiber, and H. P. Lovecraft, and he invited Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury and Charles Beaumont to supply their own scripts.

Gene Roddenberry had previously been known for his work on westerns such as HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL and his first series, a military drama named THE LIEUTENANT. He also had read some Science Fiction, and put together STAR TREK with the idea of using the futuristic background the same way he'd used the turn of the century to comment on modern trials. Like Mr. Serling he sought out names in the SF field, and Norman Spinrad, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, Jerome Bixby, Jerry Sohl and Robert Bloch helped to make the series a modern classic. In creating STAR TREK, Mr. Roddenberry changed the very nature of presenting SF on the small screen.

Darren McGavin was a fine character actor better known for playing streetwise detectives such as MIKE HAMMER or THE OUTSIDER. These characteristics made him a perfect fit for the weary, rumpled reporter Carl Kolchack when he first played the part in THE NIGHT STALKER film. When the show went to series, Mr. McGavin was one of the producers, and made some very canny decisions. Realizing that verisimilitude was important for suspension of disbelief, he employed the hand-held camera to give a documentary feel to the proceedings, an filmed much of the urban scenes on location instead of a soundstage. Understanding also that the weekly budget did not allow for extensive and expensive makeups or mechanical effects for the monsters, he chose to film the Horror scenes very Hitchcockian, in deep shadows and suggesting rather than graphically showing the supernatural entities, ala Val Lewton. His influence on films as diverse as THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, 28 DAYS LATER and INSIDIOUS is not to be underestimated. (He also later produced and directed a very interesting psychological Horror film called HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY, LOVE GEORGE, which used many of the tricks practiced on THE NIGHT STALKER.)

None of these individuals had a track record in the Horror field or community at the time of their entry; what they had was an abiding respect for the field and an eagerness to learn and flex their muscles; to add something to the banquet. That's a very commendable thing to do; every genre needs an infusion of new blood to kick-start it, as it were; to keep it from becoming comfortable and complacent. The only problems arise when those taking the reigns of Horror are unaware of the history and what has come before; when they feel they are creating something new and vital while they are simply reinventing the wheel. It's then that missteps such as the ones in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN occur.

It can also be infuriating to the long-term fan when someone not connected with the field takes ideas and techniques that are very common and well worn (sometimes overused), and the critical establishment heaps undue praise on them for their efforts. That's the point when members of the community who've dedicated their lives and passions to the field, climb to their feet and cry foul. It reeks of ignorance and disrespect; it seems to imply that "serious" artists can use Horror for their own benefit and create "Art", while standard practitioners of Horror and Dark Fantasy are not "serious" artists and undeserving of critical evaluation and praise. The examples are not hard to find in the least.

John Updike, a wonderful writer and mainstream literary darling for his Rabbit series, tried his hand at the Dark Fantastic twice: once with “The Centaur”, which was universally deemed a failure, and "The Witches Of Eastwick", which was an unqualified success. (He also wrote a sequel to "Eastwick", so we can say he dipped his toe in the stream three times.) The critics were unanimous in their praise for the novel and it's feminist-magical overtones. Those of us in the genre also thought it was a fine work, and didn't begrudge Mr. Updike his praise or success. But more than a few, notably Harlan Ellison, Thomas Disch, Gahan Wilson and several others, couldn't help but comment that the theme had been played before and used very, very well, in Fritz Leiber's classic novel "Conjure Wife" (which became the film BURN WITCH BURN), and Mr. Leiber didn't receive one tenth the praise and critical acclaim as Mr. Updike.

Stanley Kubrick decided to try his hand outright in the genre with his adaptation of Stephen King's "The Shining" (although he danced around Horror several times before with DR. STRANGELOVE, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and HAL's murderous rampage in  2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY). Mr. King wasn't too happy with some of the changes wrought to his book, and was ambivalent about the movie's success, stating that Mr. Kubrick didn't really understand Horror. But the coldness, the isolation, the slow pace without huge jumps and the terror seen in direct sunlight work very well in ratcheting up the tension an creating a masterwork of terror. But...there is one moment when Mr. Kubrick stumbles however slightly. This occurs during Wendy's panicked run through the hotel as all the ghosts come to life (if you'll pardon the expression). Many of the apparitions are extremely unnerving; the man in the dog suit with the other masquerade guest and the tuxedoed guest with his head split open are very effective and chilling.

But at one point Wendy runs into the dining room and finds it a cobwebbed nightmare of Mrs. Haversham's house, with skeletal corpses sitting silently around the table, and for just a moment we are pulled out of the movie we've been seeing into a banal visual of "traditional" horror (looking like nothing less than the family around the dinner table Kolchack discovers beneath Seattle in THE NIGHT STRANGLER.) It's almost as though Mr. Kubrick felt he had to include some Halloween-type grue and corpses  "for the Horror fans". It's not a fatal stumble, but like a dancer slipping momentarily as he performs his routine. It distracts from the rest of the carefully lit and paced production. Still, no other critics took Mr. Kubrick to task for his pandering.

It's been noted that William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST doesn't really resemble a Horror film for much of its running time; Mr. Friedkin, whose previous film was the gritty New York crime drama THE FRENCH CONNECTION, filmed the movie as though it was an urban dram, and this sense of heightened realism added to the horrific events of the story. But towards the end, when the two priest move into Reagan's bedroom for the final confrontation, the film becomes a full-out "Horror" film, complete with flashes of lightning during the most dramatic moments. While this works within the framework of the story, and follows the novel closely, by using the accruements of the standard "monster-in-the-room" film, the movie loses a little of its steam and some of its impact from the earlier image of sunlight fear, much as THE SHINING.

(Another small note, taken for what it's worth, is that Mr. Friedkin never seemed comfortable with the label "Horror Film"; he chose to call THE EXORCIST a "Supernatural Drama", or a "Religious Film". Mr. Kubrick, on the other hand, had no trouble proclaiming THE SHINING a work of Horror.)

I've labeled these little stumbles 'missteps', for that's what they are. They don't really do much damage to the film or story in the end. One must remember that out-and-out disaster carries its own arrogance and ignorance about our genre. I don't believe Mr. Serling ever forgave Universal Studios (yes, the same company that became synonymous with Horror) for its butchery when it syndicated the NIGHT GALLERY series. Because of its anthology nature, and because Mr. Serling and the producers were experimenting with story length within each hour's presentations, some NIGHT GALLERY tales were but a brief ten-fifteen minutes of what one critic called "hit-and-run Horror"; the Shock Short, to quote Forrest J. Ackerman. Others that were more of a character study, or took their time establishing the terror, would clock in at thirty-forty minutes, such as the classic "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar", arguably the best episode of the series, winning Mr. Serling yet another Emmy for his writing.

When Universal syndicated the show, they wanted to run in standard thirty minute episodes, like THE TWILIGHT ZONE. That meant, first, that all extended length episodes had to be cut down to the twenty-two minute length (to include commercials), rendering some of the episodes completely incoherent. But they weren't finished yet; oh no! For the shorter segments, they cut the episodes apart and added footage to them to increase their running time, even if the footage had nothing to do with the story at hand!

This was why "The Hand Of Borgus Weems ", an episode about a man's hand that becomes possessed by the will of a killer, featured footage of a gentleman wrestling a dog-sized spider on a sofa! This is why the episode "The Painted Mirror" showed several minutes of stop-motion dinosaur footage when the antique dealer looked through the hole he'd scraped in the paint. (And as one critic noted, this completely destroyed the carefully built ending, which revealed, through shadow and suggestion, that this garden paradise world inside the mirror contained monsters.) This was why...well, never mind; the head reels. Why was this done? The executives at Universal thought it made no difference. NIGHT GALLERY was a spooky show, so if they put in a scene of a man fighting a spider...well, that was spooky, wasn't it? It doesn't have to make sense; it just has to look scary! The fans won't know the difference; it doesn't really matter.

Let me repeat that, for those who catch on slowly: It doesn't have to make sense; it just has to look scary! The fans won't know the difference; it doesn't really matter!

There, summed up in one short sentence, is the attitude of studio executives, writers, directors and producers who greenlight these needless remakes that we've all grown so tired of, and that disappoint us tremendously. I won't bother to name them anymore; we all know to which I'm referring.

But the punchline is we do know the difference, and that cost Universal who knows how many millions in revenue. NIGHT GALLERY never achieved the success in syndication that THE TWILIGHT ZONE did because of this mutilation; it wasn't until the DVD sets were released and the episodes were shown as originally broadcast that the series regained its reputation. And one of the first questions I asked, and I'm certain I was not alone in asking this among NIGHT GALLERY fans, when it was announced that the series would be released on DVD, was, "Is it the broadcast version or the syndicated?"

(And not content with trashing NIGHT GALLERY, Universal took another series, THE SIXTH SENSE , which only had a season-and-a-half's worth of episodes, too little to syndicate on it's own, edited the sixty-minute episodes into twenty-two minutes, commissioned several new paintings, and contractually forced Mr. Serling to record introductions to these nonsensical episodes and included them in the NIGHT GALLERY package. Thereby destroying yet another series; THE SIXTH SENSE was not a complete success but it wasn't horrid either, and it now will probably have no DVD release of its own because of this tampering. And Universal will lose more money, which would be poetic justice if it weren't for the fact that we the viewer lose in the bargain!)

Obviously we in the community don't want to slam the door in the faces of those who would like to experiment with Horror; if we did we'd have no “Rosemary's Baby” or “Interview With A Vampire” or “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell”. But if those creators have no knowledge of what came before, of what was done well by others and what has been tradition in the genre, then they are bound to trip over their own concepts of fresh and new and cutting edge and give us moments like those recorded in Mr. Dallmann's review. (And the quote from the one review that he mentions in the Comments section - "a horror film for people who've outgrown horror films..." - fffh...) We'll continue to get remakes of movies from people who have no interest in Horror, who treat it simply as a vehicle to launch their careers or get the studio to notice their talents or worst of all, who hold the field that birthed Poe and Bierce and Lovecraft and Stoker in contempt, as something to rush through and pillage for their own meager efforts before moving on to other graves to violate.

You don't climb Everest without investing in a good set of climbing ropes, hooks, harnesses, carabiners and very heavy long underwear. You don't submerge into the Marianas Trench with taking a few swimming lessons and renting a good bathyscaphe. And if you truly don't know the rich history of the field of the Dark Fantastic, please stick to music videos. You're less apt to stumble that way.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

MARCH
2012

 

Like many of you, I sat in my crypt on Sunday evening, February 26, and watched the Academy Awards. I was quite surprised to see the ceremony end before midnight , but in all I thought many of the choices honored were quite appropriate. I also thought THE ARTIST was the best film I'd seen in the past year, although I would have been equally pleased if HUGO had won. (I spoke highly of that film not long ago in my RECOMMENDATIONS Page.)

I haven't really watched the Oscar ceremony in some time; at least not completely. I suppose I've tired of the pomp and hype associated with the event, as though the event was a cause unto itself. (And in many ways, I suppose it is.) I believe what bothers me the most about the Oscars as they now exist is the horse race mentality: everyone is rooting for their favorite to "win," and for that film to "win" others have to "lose."

Balderdash. It's may be a cliche, but there is a great deal of honor in "simply being nominated." There are thousands of films released each year; independent, studio, documentary, animation (never enough of those, in my opinion), short subjects. What the Oscars should represent is the opportunity to honor their finest moments and proudest achievements. They should be separate from multimillion dollar campaigns waged to put your movie in the winner's circle.

I know; I'm naive. Movies are a billion-dollar business, and winning an Oscar means extended life for your product in a time when movies pop in and out of theaters faster than Dr. Sam Beckett in QUANTUM LEAP. It has become all about the money instead of achievement.

I should point out that it hasn't always been this way; as stated during the telecast this year, the first Oscar ceremony was held in 1929, and it lasted 15 minutes, and the winners had been announced months before. (Yes, there were less films then, but still...) Originally it was a luncheon, and took place in the middle of the day. Members had a nice lunch, sat through a short ceremony, and went home.

Now the event itself means money not only to the movies but to the television networks and their advertisers. The commercials become as important as the program, much like the Super Bowl, and the event itself almost becomes secondary, much like the Super Bowl. I don't see it changing anytime soon, but wouldn't it be wonderful if someone stood up at a Guild meeting in Hollywood and said, "Hey! Here's a thought! Instead of spending all that money on the Oscar extravaganza this year, why don't we take those millions and put them back into the moves we're making, and just have a nice dinner? We'll make the TV cameras stay home."

Granted, that individual might find himself carted away in a snug white jacket, but we can hope.

Fundamentally, though, I approve of the Oscars, for this simple reason: everyone wants validation. Everyone wants to know what they do matters, and in the end, everyone wants a piece of ART that they've had a hand in creating recognized for the achievement they hope it is. There's nothing wrong with that at all, and I applaud the Writer's Guild, the Producer's Guild, The Hugo Awards, the Nebula Awards, the Stoker Awards (hope to receive one of those myself some day, if they change their discriminatory rules about excluding the dead), et al, for recognizing excellence in their crafts.

Which brings me to the genre of Horror and Dark Fantasy.

More often than not, at this time of year, some group of fans (aided by their fanzines, magazines and the Internet), begin a low grumbling and complaining about Horror not being recognized legitimately. The song goes something like this: "They never take Horror Films seriously, but Horror makes so much money for them. Look at PARANORMAL ACTIVITY or THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT! Horror props up many of the studios who lose money on more respectable films, but they treat Horror like something to be ashamed of! They never honor the giants of the Horror field, they never acknowledge how many stars got their start in Horror! They don't nominate them for awards of give them the recognition they deserve! The Oscars are biased against Horror! (or Science Fiction, or Fantasy, what have you.)"

This is currently the argument being put forth on a podcast named "Into The Dark: Horror, The Red-Headed Stepchild," which you can find by clicking HERE, but it's been made many time before in various editorials, articles, blogs and convention panels.

I understand Horror fans and professionals wanting the genre taken seriously. As I said above, it's natural to want recognition and validation, and we've certainly earned it; the Horror field has proven so versatile and enticing that authors as varied as Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Joyce Carol Oates, Tennessee Williams, Paddy Chayefsky and Isaac Bashevis Singer have dipped into it, sometimes repeatedly. Filmmakers Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman, Nicholas Roeg, Alfred Hitchcock, John Schlesinger and Ken Russell among others have created some of their most powerful work using the Horror trope, and these are not even considered "insiders" in the field. We've earned every kudo we've received.

Still, I have several objections to this complaining. First, it sounds a great deal like whining. Yes, it's unfair that we are still scoffed at by scholars, critics and some of the general public. But life (and after-life, I should mention) isn't fair. Sometimes you just need to play the hand you're dealt, and do the best you can, secure in your own abilities.

The argument can apply to almost any genre of film making, and fails to take into account the ecology of the film industry. When I say thousands of films are released every year, that's a conservative estimate. Think for a moment; think of the independent, home-made direct-to-DVD releases. Think of the hundreds of cable channels, each one producing some original programming. Think of the foreign market films coming to American through world-wide distributors or through the Underground market (which brought to the US the Japanese Horror Boom of the 1990s).  Think of the small independents and monolithic studios like Paramount , 20th Century Fox, Universal, Disney, and the rest; the large studios alone produce hundreds an hundreds of features, many that hit the theaters one weekend and then vanish without a trace.

Out of all these, five movies are nominated by the Academy for Best Picture. (Only recently have they expanded to nine.) To say that Horror is overlooked is understating; most movies are overlooked, be they dramas, comedies, action films or musicals. You could easily say the same about the Western, the Spy Film, the Science Fiction Film, the Detective Film, the Love Story, the Historical Drama; almost all genres can complain that their own subset is unfairly neglected, simply because there are just too many movies.

Second, let's be completely honest with each other; many Horror movies are simply bad. Many are worst than bad. Many are execrable. We enjoy them for the vicarious visceral thrill, but they simply aren't that good , and even some of the ones that define the genre are, shall we say, less than Oscar material. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is a gut-wrenching classic of pure adrenaline, but does it really deserve a place of honor alongside FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, BEN HUR, AMADEUS, and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST? Granted it has the low-budget grit of some of the films from the 1960s and 70s that were nominated, such as MIDNIGHT COWBOY (the only X-rated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture), but it lacks much of the subtlety and skill of these films. (And to be fair, many of Martin Scorsese's early films - MEAN STREETS and WHO'S THAT KNOCKING ON MY DOOR? - and many of John Cassavettes movies, such as FACES and HUSBANDS, were never nominated, and these were two of the leading proponents of the harsh-lighting, low-budget independent movie.)

Does HALLOWEEN, as frightening and well-made as it is, truly stand alone next to THE ELEPHANT MAN and THE KILLING FIELDS? Does PHANTASM deserve to be spoken n the same breath with GONE WITH THE WIND and THE DEER HUNTER? Is THE DEVIL'S REJECTS really comparable to THE GODFATHER or THE FRENCH CONNECTION? Really?

An Oscar nomination implies a certain character that sets it apart from other movies; better acting, sharper writing, creative directing; in short, a professionalism above and beyond the nature of your standard studio or independent production. Remember, this is not supposed to be simply a popularity contest; these films are supposed to be The Best Of The Best. (Yes, there are some years that are far weaker than others, but the attempt to achieve greatness is still there, even if it falls short.) And I believe when the Horror Film reaches this zenith, as it did with THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS - only one of three films to capture the top five Oscar honors of Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Writing - I think the Academy recognizes it as such, and honors it appropriately.

We'll come back to that in a moment.

Third, very simply, most Academy members are only human, and they can make mistakes. I recall one critic who was looking back through his various lists of "Best Films Of The Year," and realized to his horror that he'd neglected to include VERTIGO as one of the best of 1958; only one of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous works. And I recall with amusement the answer Roger Ebert gave when asked by a fan if there was any review that he looked back on and had changed his opinion. Mr. Ebert smiled sheepishly and said, "If I were writing the review today, I probably wouldn't write that the Simon and Garfunkel songs in THE GRADUATE are 'instantly forgettable'."

Simply put, some movies are too vital, too imposing, to take in the first viewing, and need the distance of time to truly understand their greatness. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is rightly considered a classic, but on its initial release it was a lightning rod that cause intense debate and outrage, quite noticeably in the Horror community itself. The fans of the Universal monsters were horrified at the ghoulishness and graphic violence on the screen, and many critics savaged the film. Very few were able to look beyond the gore trappings and see the masterpiece beneath; not at first. The same fan polarization occurred with 2001: A SPACE ODDYSSEY  and BLADE RUNNER. Fans were extremely divided on their merits, and the debates were loud and passionate. Some movies are really too big for their intended audiences at first glance, and only later, past the point of garnering awards, can their achievements be recognized.

But my biggest objection to the idea that the Oscars ignores the Horror genre is this: it just isn't true. Horror has been amply represented at the Academy Awards; not always as winning the final trophy (remember, there are only five nominees, and only one can win in any given year) but in their nominations.

To prove that, I've gone back and combed through the nominations for the Academy Awards from the year 1950 until 1980; thirty years worth of movies. This leaves out two of the bigger Horror Films in recent memory to be honored: THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and THE SIXTH SENSE. I've also confined myself to films that are generally agreed to be Horror Films (which is another source of argument; what is a Horror Film? Is ALIEN Horror or Science Fiction? What about psychological terror versus supernatural? Is it a Thriller of Horror? I consider WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLFE and SUNSET BOULEVARD to be Horror; do you? What about STRAW DOGS? As you can see, it gets very complicated.)

So I've left out Science Fiction movies, and other borderline entries. For my reference, I'm only including movies listed in Phil Hardy's magnum opus, "The Encyclopedia Of Horror Films." If it's not in there, it's not included, no matter my opinion. I'm also leaving out any "special" awards; for instance, Alfred Hitchcock was awarded a lifetime achievement award, and so was Merian C. Cooper, who produced, wrote and co-directed (among other films) KING KONG. I'm only concerning myself with the actual movies of each year represented.

Does this sound fair? Very well; off we go...

The first nomination of note comes in 1953, when THE TELL-TALE HEART  was nominated for Best Animated Short. Narrated by James Mason, it has the distinction of being the first animated film rated X by British Board of Censors. It still holds up surprisingly well; you can find it by going to my RECOMMENDATIONS Page.

1956 saw several nominations for the classic THE BAD SEED. Nancy Kelly was nominated for Best Actress, while both Eileen Heckart and Patty McCormack vied for Best Supporting Actress. The film also received a nod for its Cinematography. 

In 1958 the comedy BELL , BOOK & CANDLE was nominated for Best Art Direction and Costume Design.

1960 was a banner year for Horror. The groundbreaking PSYCHO  received 4 nominations; Best Supporting Actress for Janet Leigh , Art Direction, Black & White Cinematography, and a Directing nomination for Mr. Hitchcock. Even more important, the winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film was Ingmar Bergman's  THE VIRGIN SPRING. (You may know the American version under the name LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, original and remake!)

1962 was also a terrific year. WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? received nominations for Victor Buono for Best Supporting Actor and Betty Davis for Best Actress (probably based on the "I'm Writing A Letter To Daddy" number alone!) It was also recognized with nominations for Cinematography and Costume Design.

1963 was a landmark year in its own way. The French short AN OCCURANCCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE won the Oscar for Best Short Subject; consequently the rights were purchased and the film was shown as a special episode of the original THE TWILIGHT ZONE  series, making it the first Oscar winning film shown as part of a regular series broadcast. In addition, Mr. Hitchcock's follow-up to PSYCHO, THE BIRDS, was nominated for Special Effects.

1964 saw Agnes Moorehead receive a nod for Best Supporting Actress for  HUSH, HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE, which had a field day with nominations for Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, and Music! Good Heavens, it even received a Best Song nomination for "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte'!  (It lost to "Chim-Chim-a Ree" from MARY POPPINS.)

In 1965, Samantha Egger was nominated Best Actress for her work in THE COLLECTOR, and William Wyler received a Best Director nomination, while the classic Japanese ghost epic KWAIDAN was nominated for Best Foreign Film.

1967 saw Audrey Hepburn rightfully nominated for Best Actress for her bravura headlining WAIT UNTIL DARK.

1968 the classic ROSEMARY'S BABY won the Best Supporting Actress award for Ruth Gordon and received a nomination for best Adapted Screenplay. (It should also be noted that the film won many, many other major awards, including honoring genre stalwart William Castle by the Producer's Guild.) 

1971's WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN was nominated for Costume Design.

1972 saw probably the most infamous nomination: "Ben" from the film of the same name was suggested for Best Song. (shudder!) Happily, it lost. But the winner for Best Short Subject was the glorious animated  A CHRISTMAS CAROL, produced by Chuck Jones and using the original illustrations as the models for the artwork.

1973 was another banner year for Horror, with the release of THE EXORCIST. It's many nominations include Best Picture, Jason Miller for Best Supporting Actor, Ellen Burstin for  Best Actress, Linda Blair for Best Supporting Actress, Art Direction Cinematography, Directing, and Editing, and wins for Sound and Adapted Screenplay. (The only reason "Tubular Bells" wasn't nominated for Best Music was because it was a previously released instrumental work.)

1974 saw two music nominations: SHANKS  for Best Music in a Drama, and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE for Best Music in a Musical, along with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN nominated for Sound and Adapted Screenplay (from SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, officially).

In 1975 the blockbuster JAWS  was nominated for Best Picture, the only nomination it lost. It won the awards for Editing, Music, and Sound, which it deserved indubitably.

1976 saw the emergence of Stephen King as a cinematic force, with both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie nominated for their work in CARRIE, as, respectively, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. KING KONG was nominated for Cinematography, Sound, and Visual Effects (which it won, in a tie with LOGAN'S RUN). And  THE OMEN  deservedly received the award for Music although it lost after being nominated for Original Song ("Ave Satani"). (And although the film isn't listed in Mr. Hardy's tome, I want to acknowledge Laurence Olivier's nomination for Best Actor for his chilling portrayal of Szell in MARATHON MAN, a movie many, among them Clive Barker and myself, definitely consider Horror.)

Laurence Olivier was nominated again in 1978 for Best Actor for THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, which was also nominated for Editing and Music. 

Finally, in 1979 ALIEN was nominated for Art Direction and won for Special Effects, while  THE AMITYVILLE HORROR received a nomination for Music. 

And there you have it. A pretty impressive listing, and, as I mentioned before, not even including Science Fiction Films (which took their share of Oscar nominations and awards, particularly during the 1950s with George Pal) and films that explore that shadowy boundary between Horror, Surrealism and the Avant-Garde. (I consider ALL THAT JAZZ a Dark Fantasy film, although I'm not certain who agrees with me; certainly not Mr. Hardy, who doesn't list it in his volume.)

But even excluding these other films, playing by the rules established, out of a 30 year period we have 18 years, more than half, that have had a least one recognition of a Horror Film. The naysayers will then note that most Horror and Science Fiction Films win technical awards, if they win at all, and are ignored in the Best Picture, Actor, Actress and other categories where mainstream films flourish.

But making a Horror film (or a Science Fiction, or a Western, or a Silent, for that matter) requires a certain sensibility of storytelling expertise, and are often dependant on sound effects, lighting design, music, makeup and physical effects to accomplish the task of terrifying the audience. Why shouldn't they receive such awards, or excel in them. And when Horror is at its best (with CARRIE and THE EXORCIST and ROSEMARY'S BABY and JAWS), then the Academy can't help but acknowledge the skill and artistry present.

Do people and films get overlooked? Of course they do; as I stated before, the Academy members are only human. How could Mr. Hitchcock and Ms. Leigh receive their nominations for PSYCHO without acknowledging the iconic performance of Anthony Perkins, or Bernard Hermann's music? How could the members nominate Audrey Hepburn (deservedly) for WAIT UNTIL DARK) and ignore the sinister performance of Alan Arkin, a portrayal no less than Stephen King declares, "...probably the greatest evocation of screen villainy since Peter Lorre in M?" How in hell was Mr. Spielberg overlooked for his direction in JAWS? (Which outraged Academy members at the time as well.) And of course there are personal preferences; if Sissy Spacek and Betty Davis can be honored for performances that basically carry their movies, where is Mia Farrow for ROSEMARY'S BABY and Sigourney Weaver for ALIEN? And as much as I was pleased to see Mr. Price finally nominated for Best Supporting Actor for THE WHALES OF AUGUST, where was his Best Actor nod for THEATER OF BLOOD, a clever film that has obtained classic status, and a caution-to-the-wind full-blown powerhouse performance certainly worthy of Ms. Davis as Baby Jane and Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, a performance noted as the actor's favorite?

Ah well. Still, looking back, it's an impressive list. And as long as we champion the terrible and useless remakes that flood the Horror market; as long as we support the Torture Porn atrocities that show up on cable television in the late hours; as long as we finance and flock to slasher/stalker/bodycount movies that have all the subtext and staying power of a mouthful of cotton candy, well, I don't believe we can fairly blame the Oscars for the oversights. We can honestly shake our fists at the Academy and demand, "Why don't you take Horror seriously?!?!"

As another successful scripter has noted, the fault lies not with the stars, but with ourselves.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

FEBRUARY
2012

 

February has been set aside by many in the Horror and Dark Fantasy community as Women In Horror Month, a time to honor women who've made a contribution to our beloved genre. But some people find such a celebration either unnecessary or insulting, at least according to their sensibilities.

One such is a gentleman named Chris Alexander. If the name is unfamiliar to you, don't despair; Mr. Alexander is not a Horror filmmaker or author, he's rather a journalist and currently the editor of "Fangoria" magazine. In such a position he does wield some influence in the Horror community, so his issues with Women In Horror Month (or WIMH, to save my fingers) should be given due attention.

If you click HERE you'll find Mr. Alexander's editorial, and the reaction from Ms. Heidi Honeycutt, Editor-In-Chief of the website "Planet Fury," and director of the Viscera Film Festival in Los Angeles . I'll let you read the editorial for yourself, and then please continue on and read the comments both by Mr. Alexander and the other patrons of "Planet Fury". I'll wait. 

Thank you.

I've not been familiar with Ms. Honeycutt's work in the past, although I was aware of the Viscera Film Festival. In a like manner I have been familiar with Mr. Alexander, and although I've found him in the past to be a fairly thoughtful writer and essayist, I think he's far off the track here. Part of that is no doubt the snide tone that he assumes with his article; I'm so tired of the current desire to quip sardonically as an expression of an individual's talent and wit. Whatever happened to simple social graces? One would think that the world runs on snark, and perhaps today it does, and I find that more than a little annoying. (I actually caused a small firestorm some years ago when I presented these views about the website Gothic.net, but I'll tell you about that another time...)

No, Mr. Alexander does no favors to himself with his chip-on-his-shoulder attitude, even if he makes some valid points about honoring individuals (and particularly women) in general. But I think even without the preciously sarcastic tone, his reasoning is off the mark. I'm sure he'll correct me if I'm wrong, but the essence of Mr. Alexander's remarks lean towards, "Hey! We don't need a Women's In Horror Month! Fangoria celebrates women all the time!" I catalogue this with the oft-heard jibe, "How can there be so much racism in America ? Don't we have a Black President?"

Such comparisons are non-sequitors and intentionally seem to miss the point that one may not necessarily have much to do with the other. Commonsense tells us that no matter what race the President is, racism is still quite rampant in the US . (Anyone who doubts that I invite to call together several of their African-American friends, climb into a car, and drive around an upscale mostly-Caucasian neighbor for an hour and see how long it takes before you attract the authorities' attention...)

Let's examine a few facts about both Mr. Alexander's publication and women in Horror in general.

Yes, to Mr. Alexander's credit, it is true that he features women in "Fangoria." But many of these women are actresses, and while it's fine to feature and interview an actress for an upcoming movie (or series of past movies), actresses for the most part do not create the work; they are artists for hire. Furthermore, many of the actresses featured in the magazine are well-known for their Scream Queen status. Scream Queens (or as they're now commonly known, "Final Girls" because they are the last survivors of the killer or creature's rampage) are often not hired for their thespian abilities; quite frankly, many are hired to scream and wear very little clothing, or no clothing at all. The criteria for hiring them differ from hiring a classically trained actress, and if we can be completely honest, many of these women are not very good actresses.

I believe Mr. Alexander is being a bit disingenuous with his response to the criticism; but it does bring up a side dilemma: quite often the presentation of females in Horror and Dark Fantasy are noticeably lacking, particularly in this age of 'Torture Porn' (which I discussed at length some months ago). Often the Final Girls or Scream Queens are celebrated, and pointed to as an example of how the genre actually features women in important roles.

Please
.

Many of these women are cast due to the size of their bosom or curve of their derrière. Still, the apologists do have a point; on one hand, many of the women are presented as strong and independent. On the other hand, these same women are depicted wearing as little clothing as is allowable by law, so the term 'pandering' leaps to mind.

This caused a huge uproar in the DC Comics line not long ago, when several of their strongest female characters were redesigned as large-breasted g-string wearing sexual players - all draw and written by men. Some women naturally took exception to this. But it can be problematic: Buffy Summers and Faith are depicted as being strong, independent, fierce and powerful individuals. They also look good wearing skin tight leather pants and halter tops. Coincidence? Were the girls of SUCKER PUNCH female role models because they did battle with an increasing number of monstrous supernatural threats, or were they male geek fantasies because they dressed like strippers?

I don't know that I have the answer; as a male, I'm not sure I entirely have a right to an answer. I'd like to believe that women can be smart, strong and sensual, brave and beautiful, fierce-some and flirty, demure and dangerous, all in one package, just as I believe men should have that right. I also believe that a woman should be allowed to wear the skimpiest clothing possible and bed as many partners as she wishes, so long as it is her choice and her decision. In the classic tradition of the ERA, I don't believe women should be put into any boxes or shoved onto any pedestals; I believe they should live and love and be whatever they themselves wish to be. A radical notion, I know, but still...

Frankly, though I applaud Mr. Alexander's efforts to bring these women to the forefront, I feel there has definitely been a lack of coverage of those who don't step in front of the camera. The working directors, writers, artists, makeup and special effects technicians who are women seem to get the short shift in many instances. This isn't necessarily the fault of "Fangoria" or Mr. Alexander; rather, I fault society as a whole.

Quickly now: name your favorite female Horror director. Someone of the same status as George Romero, David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Lucky McKee, Don Coscarelli and David Lynch, not to mention Alfred Hitchcock, Mario Bava, Dario Argento or Roman Polanski. Those names wrote very easily; they were the first to pop into my mind. But I know I'd have to go to IMDB to find female directors of comparable stature in the field. The only two that come immediately to mind are Mary Lambert and Kathryn Bigelow.

Let's try Horror Writers. Name any that have achieved the same recognition as Clive Barker, Richard Matheson, Joe Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, or Fritz Leiber. This comes a bit easier; with some small prodding I can name Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, V. C. Andrews, Nancy Collins, and Ellen Datlow. I intentionally left off the list Stephen King, who is more than simply am author, but a phenomenon unto himself; yet there is conceivably a woman whose fame and sales may equal Mr. King's in current popularity: Stephanie Meyer, and we all know what genre enthusiasts think of her efforts. (I would also include J. K. Rowling, but diehard fans will probably point out her work more correctly falls under the heading of Fantasy.)

(While we're on the subject of writers, I think Science Fiction fares better than Horror in elevating woman authors to acclaimed status. I think Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Joanna Russ and Madeleine L' Engle are thought of as equal in stature to the other giants of the field, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein.)

Now we get trickier. Producers? Anyone to equal Chris Carter, Joss Whedon, Dan Curtis, Gene Roddenbery? Marti Noxon comes to mind, but much of her efforts were under Joss Whedon, and her post-BUFFY work has been rather pale. Makeup? Any female makeup designer tht compares to Rick Baker or Dick Smith? Special Effects? Whose the female Stan Winston or John Dykstra?

Oh, they're out there, working away, toiling grimly in the fields of low-budget and independent film and stage. But none of them receive the comparable attention of their male counterparts. And that's not only less than fair, it's criminal, because their talents are oft-times equal to anything the male-dominated studios choose to spotlight. (It wasn't a female, after all, at the helm of the abysmal remakes of FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, et al. More's the pity; perhaps they could have made something of the claptrap.)

Look - humanity is tribal by nature. People need to cluster among those whom they resemble and are most comfortable with. African-Americans tend to know other African Americans, Caucasians associate with fellow Caucasians, Catholics are familiar with fellow Catholics, Jews have more Jewish friends, and so on. It's human nature, and the best thing about the much-maligned Equal Opportunity Laws is that they tell us that we're better than human nature; we have intellect and reason as well. The best use of the laws is not to give unfair advantage to one group or another; all they simply should do is nudge your reasoning processes. Here are five equally qualified individuals; three are White, one is Black, and one is a Woman. You are a White Male, and naturally may be inclined to a comfort level with your peers. The nudge simply should say to you, "Hey - there are two other people here. Don't forget about them. Why not give them a look as well?"

The movie business, as it exists today, and has for some time, is male dominated, and White Male dominated at that. And it's not surprising that many of those chosen to helm important projects are themselves White Males. Human nature, remember? That's why we have Women In Horror Month; just as a reminder that there's more to this rich genre than John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, whose latest efforts haven't exactly been stellar. Who's this Louisa Fielden, and what's she up to?

Mr. Alexander, in the response comments to his editorial, states he stands behind his words. He's welcome to, but I feel the rest of us are well within our rights to stand behind our responses, and demand a bit better of him in the future. Perhaps he'll take that into consideration; perhaps not. But now we know we he stands, and we can purchase or not as our own consciences determine, and ask that as purchasers of his product, he shows a bit more sensitivity to our desires as well.

And to give you some other choices, I'd like to personally honor some women in the genre that I feel have made extraordinary contributions, honoring Women In Horror Month in my own humble way. Here are some women who made stride in Horror and Dark Fantasy without feeling the need to remove their clothing or submit to the tortures of some redneck serial killer. Please be aware that I've supplied links to their respective websites below; be aware also that many of these sites are for mature persons only.

CHAINSAW SALLY I may be hurting my cause with Ms. Sally; after all, in many aspects she encompasses the "Scream Queen" stereotype of the beautiful girl dressed in as little as possible. But look beyond the appearance and you'll find a smartly subversive streak behind the blood and gore. Sally is the avenger, a twisted moralist dishing out pain and pleasure on her own terms with a large dollop of ultraviolet black humor front and center. Created as a HorrorHostess-type character, Chainsaw Sally was spun into a feature film character, and then given her own webseries, all under the direction of Ms. Sally herself, April Monique Burril, (with a strong helping hand from her husband JimmyO Burril .)  She may not be to everyone's taste, but try her; like sushi and scrapple, she grows on you.

JOVANKA VUCKOVIC made her mark as the editor of "Rue Morgue" magazine, for my money the best publication dealing with Horror in Modern Culture. As the wielder of the blue pencil, she brought a smart sensibility and strong opinions to film and book reviews, championing works that have gone on to become modern classic, such as MARTYRS, CALVAIRE and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. (Lest you think these are strictly love letters to my choices, I disagreed greatly with some of her opinions, and had a terse email exchange over a book review I thought was unfair to the author. Still, she was professional in our disagreement, which I did and do admire greatly. Would that others followed her example.) She has since left the magazine to concentrate on her filmmaking; her first attempt, THE CAPTURED BIRD, is in post-production. I for one am looking forward to it eagerly.

P D CACEK is a dear, close friend, but we became friends out of a mutual respect for each other's talents, and Ms. Cacek, Stoker Award-winning author (she hates when I do that) is a profoundly impressive author. Whether she's tweaking the conventions of the vampire myth in her novel “Night Prayers,” or demonstrating a warmth and compassion side by side with her sense of the macabre in her short stories "Leavings," "The Ancient One" and the indescribable "Mime Games," she charts the same territory as Stephen King and Rod Serling, trading the Dark Fantastic with scenes of deep humanity. Her short story "Dust Motes" is a classic, and still takes my breath away; it would have been perfect on THE TWILIGHT ZONE, the original or the 1980s revival. And probably no man could write of sexual perversion and horror as well as she did with her infamous award-winning story "Metalica." For adults only. Really. You have been warned.

AMY LYNN BEST  has been a triple-threat producer-director-actress for quite some time, but she is equally well-known for her stints behind the camera as in front, co-producing or directing many of the productions she appears in. Based primarily around Pittsburgh, PA (the stomping grounds of George Romero, another independent auteur), Ms. Best has produced features including THE RESURRECTION GAME, SEVERE INJURIES, HIGH STAKES , and DEMON DIVAS AND THE LANES OF DAMNATION , and directed SPLATTER MOVIE: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT and WERE-GRRL , most under own production company Happy Cloud Pictures. She was one of the founding voices of Pretty-Scary.net, which morphed into the site "Planet Fury” listed above, and is a frequent participant in Women In Horror Month activities and events.

MAURA MCHUGH is a short story author, poet, screenwriter and film director, but she may be most recognized as the creator and writer of two comic book series, "Roisin Dubh," a supernatural graphic novel that tales place in turn-of-the century Ireland, and   "Jennifer Wilde," an espionage thriller with ghostly overtones, both published by Atomic Diner. Her short film HOTEL TRAINING was selected as part of the HOTEL DARKLIGHT anthology film in 2009, which was included in the Darklight Film Festival. She's also one of the founders of "Campaign For Real Fear," a website of Horror Flash Fiction. Did I mention she's Irish? That fact alone makes her near perfect in my book.

DANIELLE TUNSTALL
has an eye and taste for the macabre and disturbing that matches any other artist I've admired. A photographer by nature (although she also does other media such as oils on canvas), Ms. Tunstall primarily does portraits, but portraits and grim and striking as any pencilwork of Gris Grimly or Edward Gorey. Her work has appeared in magazines and newspapers, on CD and DVD covers, in galleries and as book illustrations. She works primarily in Horror and the Dark Fantastic, although she easily defies any genre expectations. I could try and describe her work as goth-neo-punk-apocalyptic-wasteland-spatter-film-gore , but that wouldn't even come close to the emotional impact of her pictures. You simply must experience them for yourself.

And I would be remiss not to include  Ms. Honeycutt as well; I think her efforts to establish Women In Horror Month are nothing short of visionary. (Although, truth to tell, she suffers from an occasional excess of snark as much as Mr. Alexander does. To each his own.) Her work on Planet Fury and her other personal projects advance the efforts of women's recognition, which is always a very good thing despite the naysayers, and I applaud it without reservation. Yes, it would be a far better place if such a month were unnecessary in the great scheme of things. Sadly, I don't see that happening any time soon. 

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JANUARY
2012

 

Towards the middle of December, just before my annual Christmas Show at Old Town Coffee & Chocolates in Eureka, CA (which, I'm delighted to say, was an unqualified success again this year), I noticed the following message left on the Facebook Page for the Horror Host Underground, the loose affiliation of Horror Hosts across the country (and outside as well.) It was from The Mod Ghoul, a relatively new host (or one I'd been previously unaware of). He posed a question that was dear to my ectoplasmic heart: 


MOD GHOUL: The song The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year mentions "scary ghost stories". Plural. I only know of one Xmas ghost story and it isn't scary at all. Opinions?


I took a few moments to respond:


Hmmm. Well, I believe I'm qualified to speak on this subject...

In actuality, Mr. Mod, Christmas has always been the traditional time for telling ghostly tales. It's only been relatively recently, and mainly in America , that the ghost story has been transplanted to Halloween; in Europe the tradition is still very much alive and well.

Several authors wrote collections of ghost stories to be read specifically at Christmas time, particularly Mr. Dickens and M. R. James. Probably Mr. Dickens most famous Christmas ghost story after "A Christmas Carol" is his short story "The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton."

Bear in mind that the ghost stories needn't be set at Christmastime; any good ghost story will fit the bill. However, some of my favorite actual Christmas ghost stories include Donald Westlake's "Nackles," about the anti-Santa, Ramsey Campbell's "Christmas Eve," and of course severa
l of Rod Serling's efforts take place at Christmas. Even Lovecraft penned a Christmas tale, "The Festival," which is as dark as anything that slithered out from underneath and evergreen...

I suppose it also depends on how you define 'scary'. I think the George C. Scott version of "A Christmas Carol" works so well because the writer and director treat it as a ghost story first and foremost, and I find it extremely dark and macabre.


Well, Mr. Ghoul appreciated my enlightening him, and agreed about the George C. Scott film. And several of the HorrorHosts I've performed with (including the legendary A. Ghastlee Ghoul...no relation, I believe, to Mod) liked my comment. I'm always eager to discuss the tradition of Christmas ghost stories; it is near and dear to me, and I enjoy helping it gain a stronger foothold in society.

Then, just a few days before Christmas, I read a short essay on The Huffington Post about a new, illustrated edition of "A Christmas Carol" that will be making its way into bookstores, if it hasn't already. Now, "A Christmas Carol" is one of my favorite books; beautifully written, heartfelt, and honest in its portrayal of a man forced by circumstances to reexamine his existence and beliefs. Being a Christmas story and a ghost story, perhaps the most famous of all ghost stories, I am doubly enthused with any forthcoming new edition.

(I should warn you now that I am not pleased with and do not endorse it whatsoever, as I'll soon make clear, along with my reasons.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Indulge me as I make the first of many digressions:

I've gone on at length in these essays on the unnecessary remakes of perfectly good films. I am firmly at odds with those who look forward to them, and decry their waste of money and time that would be better spent.

One who has disagreed with me in the past is legendary HorrorHost (and webmaster of my online crypt) Count Gore De Vol. He's written that he finds remakes perfectly acceptable; each generation must discover their own icons and set their own standards for what is a classic film, and he doesn't mind the reinterpretations released for new generations to embrace. (I should note in fairness that this was his opinion some years ago; I haven't spoken to him recently on the subject and don't know what he makes of the current crop of releases.)

I disagree strongly with him on that argument; I'll explain why shortly. But for now, let me say that Count Gore does have a good point. No one becomes upset when another theatrical company performs their version of HAMLET or ROMEO & JULIET. And yes, I have no problem with new adaptations of written material; else we'd have had no Hammer films based on the classic novels "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" after Misters Karloff and Lugosi had interpreted them.

Please understand, though, that plays are naturally fluid, being performed live, and I don't think anyone would begrudge another whack at the Dark Prince of Denmark even after Lord Olivier, Mr. Gibson and Mr. Branaugh did exemplary work. And books are always welcome to be translated into dramatic works to reflect the time; though I quibble with the final results to a greater or lesser degree, I have no problem with Misters Langella, Kinski, Palance, Jordan or Oldman stepping into the not inconsiderably shoes of Misters Lugosi and Lee to portray the legendary Count.

 (There's really nothing wrong with a new version of MOBY DICK or GONE WITH THE WIND, let alone PSYCHO or STRAW DOGS or THE BIRDS or any other story previously adapted into film. But rather than go back to the original works to create something new, most remakes are content to be carbon copies - in the case of Gus Van Sant's PSYCHO, literally as well as figuratively - simply repeating what was done before, and I have a huge difficulty with that.)

In this vein, I've no trouble with anyone adapting Dickens' classic tale, and have, again to a greater or lesser degree, enjoyed many, from Reginald Owen and Alistair Sims to Albert Finney in the musical SCROOGE to Mr. Magoo and the various animated versions (my favorite being the Chuck Jones produced short that used the original first edition illustrations as the model for the animation) to modern interpretations such as Bill Murray's SCROOGED. I enjoyed Henry Winkler in the version set in America , and even find  a place in my heart for the myriad television shows that use the story as a basis for their Christmas episodes, from THE ODD COUPLE to WKRP IN CINCINATTI. I have no trouble at all, provided the creators have a clear vision and reason for adapting the tale, and treat it with respect.

Let me repeat that last: I have no trouble at all, provided the creators have a clear vision and reason for adapting the tale, and treat it with respect.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

In perusing the Huffington Post about this new edition, I was first struck by what seems to be a startling discovery that the author believed unique with himself. To quote:


"We've come to think of "A Christmas Carol" as a heartwarming story, but that's because of the image we want to take away from it. You know, the final image in the movie and theater versions. A happy ending --- Scrooge reunited with his family, Tiny Tim saved, "God bless us, every one." But "A Christmas Carol" is, right until the ending, more like a horror movie. Consider everything that happens before Scrooge's redemption. He turns away requests for charity. He complains about his clerk's one-day-a-year-off-with-pay. He wishes the poor dead. He hates everyone who crosses his path. And then he pays for his miserliness and misanthropy. Ghosts appear. They take him on a tour of his miserable life: his lonely childhood, lost opportunities for friendship and love, the terrible fate that awaits Tiny Tim, the eternal damnation in store for him.

These are terrifying images. I knew that parents would be reading this story to their kids --- and older kids would be reading it by themselves --- --- but as I set out to create the illustrations for Jesse Kornbluth's e-book of “A Christmas Carol,” there was no way around it.

I had to go for scary."


Lord help us all...

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Forgive me; another digression…

I mentioned this before, and I've shared this thought with many of my human friends. Those who admire and follow the genre of Horror and Dark Fantasy are often thought to be wallowing in darkness. I believe the opposite is true - we celebrate the light by acknowledging the shadows. We recognize both go hand in hand, and there cannot be one without the other. I believe wholeheartedly in the concept of catharsis , facing the darkness and leeching some of its power away, mollifying the mortal fears and dreads of daily existence with parable and allegory.

You'll find this in works as diverse as "Great Expectations" (with Miss Haversham's wretched existence alone nursing vengeance for a broken heart and life), "'Salem's Lot" (watching the Norman Rockwell All-American town reveal it's dark underbelly of secrets, shame and literal vampirism feasting on its soul) and DAWN OF THE DEAD (society literally turned on its ear and humanity prisoners of the capitalistic monoliths they haunted in other times).

We don't embrace the dark, as so many critics of the field believe. We face it head on, unflinchingly, and observe the lessons it teaches. And fear is a great teacher; many life lessons of trial and error are learned with the additional motivation of terror behind the exercise. My human companion Bob, a writer, once coined the phrase: "Fear is the mainspring on the watch of life; it keeps the hands turning and the clock ticking." I always liked that, and I believe it's true. Another way to phrase it is from authors Craig Spector and John Skipp: "Fear is the engine that drives the car of most literature and film."

Think on it. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE's heartwarming moments and life-affirming conclusion would not be half so effective if we hadn't watched George Bailey's frantic nightmare of non-existence not less than twenty minutes before. The expression on James Stewart's face as he flees his mother's house, staring into the camera in tight close-up, is the stuff of nightmares.

Fairy tales are often criticized (by those who really don't know what they're talking about) as being "dark" and "too frightening" for children, but the children themselves understand the nature of things: life is scary, especially when your worldview is only two to three feet off the ground, surrounded by a world of loud giants, painfully bright colors and ominous sounds. Fairy tales help them cope with their day-to-day dramas, just as Horror tales helps adults face their worst fears of death, disease and despair.

So when some novice suddenly announces their wonderful "new" discovery - "Hey! 'A Christmas Carol' is really a Horror story! It's frightening! The images are scary, not all cheery and syrupy!" - well, I have to shake my head and wonder why they hadn't been paying attention before, and why they were telling us what aficionados of the Dark Fantastic knew for some time. I look forward to the next pronouncement that "ghosts are often metaphors," "Ray Bradbury's stories are allegories for childhood fears and wonders," and "Hey! That lion character in the Narnia books is actually Jesus!"

(Sorry, that was quite snide of me...)

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Back to this new edition and the final lap before I draw my narrative strands together...

Needless to say, I wasn't becoming terribly enthused with this, and my dismay soon turned to disbelief and extreme annoyance when I read the following paragraphs:


"How does one convey the feeling of the past in the language of the present? This was the challenge Jesse Kornbluth and Paige Peterson took on when revamping the Christmas classic ‘A Christmas Carol' to bring children suspense, heartbreak and joy instead of... well, boredom..."


Boredom!?! I continued reading...


"To deliver Dickens' story to a modern day audience, Kornbluth did a little bit of trimming, shedding the story's excess weight and brushing off its outdated dust. The result delivers the same Christmas magic as the classic original, but in a manner today's youth can sit through..."


Enough.

To be completely fair, these were not the words of the author of this revision; they were those of the nameless (for good reason) journalist promoting the book. Nevertheless, I believe that in light of some of the author's comments justifying his work, he would agree with the assessment. (And quite probably the illustrator too.)

By this time I was enraged, and dashed off a few thoughts of my own to the author, illustrator and journalist, as follows:


I see no one had the nerve to put their name on this little essay; probably because they knew that they were simply shilling for this edition instead of offering a critical assessment.

"..revamping the Christmas classic 'A Christmas Carol' to bring children suspense, heartbreak and joy instead of... well, boredom." Really? Can you site which parts bored you, chapter and verse? 'A Christmas Carol' is an extremely short book; even the slowest reader should be able to finish it in one sitting of no more than, say, three hours. If your attention span is that limited, you should probably stay with Huffington Post articles.

"To deliver Dickens' story to a modern day audience, Kornbluth did a little bit of trimming, shedding the story's excess weight and brushing off its outdated dust. The result delivers the same Christmas magic as the classic original, but in a manner today's youth can sit through." Again, see above for your attention span. Outdated dust? Dickens describes a world where the poor and homeless flock the streets and receive scorn from the wealthy, who would rather they be put in prison or die to "decrease the surplus population." That sounds fairly contemporary to me. Timeless, in fact.

In short, another article from the hipper-than-thou who pander to the latest trendy product. No thank you. Dickens' classic and his talents have survived almost 100 years without an update; I'll take that over some new "improvement." However, I feel that the talents of this essayist may have found their niche on the Internet; come 100 years they won't even be bothered with "whatever happened to..."


( All right, forgive me. I was angry. It certainly wasn't polite to disparage the journalist in that manner, even though I still feel my judgment accurate.)

I never did send this rebuttal; for one, after some thought I did regret my rudeness. For another, I was unable to post the response because I was not a subscriber to the Huffington Post. (And trust me, they are in no danger of that happening any time soon, for which I'm certain they are cheering even as we speak...) I did decide to comment further here in my crypt, and am seriously considering sending this to both the author and illustrator to at least impart some of the reasons for my annoyance. Whether they take them to heart or not is beyond me, but I choose not to say something behind someone's back I'm not prepared to say to their face.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Now...you ask, quite rationally, "Carpathian, why did something like this upset you when there are so many other things in the world to be enraged by?" An honest question, certainly. I can only answer that it always seems to be the minor irritants that affect us the most; like mild athlete's foot, a rash or a cough that simply won't go away.

First, there have been several edited editions of the book, from Gold Key Classics to Classics Illustrated Comics that have already simplified the story enough for the very young. (I don't truly approve of these either; they've bowdlerized stories and authors from Jules Verne to H G Wells, from Sherlock Holmes to the Count of Monte Cristo. I'd much rather youngsters struggle through the actual books if they choose to tackle them, and at least the Classic Illustrated Comics use the genuine language and texts...)

(And it seems annoyingly obvious to point this out, but “A Christmas Carol” is not a children's book, although I'm pleased if they enjoy it. It's for adults; a tale of compassion and redemption and facing some harsh facts of life and the world at large, pushing through the bleak catharsis to discover the light within. As I state above in my rebuttal, in many ways it's a very contemporary novel with its comments on the poor, the homeless that walk the uncaring streets of the city, and the wealthy and affluent's reactions to them. More's the pity…)

You can find constant examples on the Internet of adults complaining about childhood behavior: how they act in stores and restaurants, whether they're too loud or rambunctious, or simply undisciplined. Many find this behavior intolerable (I don't necessarily, but that's a discussion for another time) and they lament putting these children in 'grownup' situations before the children are ready to behave like grownups.

What I find odd is that we demand children be disciplined in every other aspect of life except their introduction to and relationship with the arts. And this is what it comes down to: how do we introduce youngsters to the fine arts? Do we ask them to take them on their own terms, or try and dumb them down for mass consumption?

Too often adults underestimate a child's attention span and reaction to situations. But spend any length of time with a child and you find them incredibly interested in the world around them, particular the artistic. Watch a group of children walking through a museum, and they stare intently at the art, absorbing it even if they don't completely understand. Bring youngsters to a concert, and they may fidget (adults too have difficulty sitting still for an extended amount of time, especially if the seats are uncomfortable) but they'll want to stay to the very end. I've witnessed it personally, when I've given a performance that ran late into the night. I've seen young fans sitting, bowed head and droopy-eyed at tables and in their parents' laps, fighting sleep. But when the parents ask if they want to leave, they shake their heads in an adamant no!

I suppose we could adapt all difficult books or plays into modern language to make them more accessible to simple minds. We could edit Shakespeare and Dickens and Bronte and Dumas and Felding to attract a larger audience. We could also repaint the Mona Lisa and make it a hologram, put contemporary fashions on the Sistine Chapel, or have Lady Gaga rewrite "The Magic Flute."

(OK, I'm being sarcastic and rude again...and I do like Lady Gaga...)

But at some point someone has to say, "enough." At some point someone has to stand up and defend the originals for the special language and images they proffer, and the riches that are derived because of this. Dickens works so well because of the language, as does Shakespeare and Twain and any other author. And frankly, sometimes you have to train yourself to appreciate something in a different idiom; too many meals of McRibs can convince you that this is the ultimate treat, and you lose your feeling for Porter Street (one of the finest barbecue places on the Lost Coast , and the world!) Tastes can be bastardized by constant exposure to dreck; not unlike waterboarding.

This is my problem with remaking films and television shows that, for whatever faults they may possess with age and improved technology, were pretty damned good in the first place. Lon Chaney's anguish in the face of lycanthropy's curse was ably presented in the original THE WOLF MAN, even without Rick Baker's wonderful makeup effects. The shadowy threat of transformation was captured exquisitely in Val Lewton's CAT PEOPLE even without the Technicolor bloodshed and trained panthers of Paul Schrader's monstrosity. Robert Wise didn't need CGI effects to make THE HAUNTING a harrowing experience, and those effects certainly didn't help the remake.

Even the remakes I've enjoyed, that have shown respect to the original material, that were made with love and care - Peter Jackson's KING KONG, Phillip Kaufman's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, William Friedkin's SORCERER - didn't really need to be redone. And certainly we didn't need the remakes of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, STRAW DOGS, and on and on... 

And here is the crux of my argument with Count Gore's view: if they cannot appreciate the originals, under their own artistic merits and standards, then it's their loss. Why redo something just to say it's the product of the new generation? They don't like the originals? Too bad. Create something more memorable yourself. And stay out of the way of those rest of us who enjoy them.

I had a young companion who refused to watch black & white films; she thought she simply wouldn't like them. And though I tried to persuade her that there were some wonderful movies that she was missing, she turned a deaf ear. No, she only liked color films. I think it would be a huge disservice to the young lady to say, "All right, we'll just remake the movies in color so you can enjoy them." Shouldn't there at least be an effort made to persuade her to try the originals, even if she has to wait a few years to appreciate them?

Doesn't such pandering cheapen the experience? How many people saw the remake of THE HAUNTING or PSYCHO and wondered what all the shouting was about? Do the youngsters who went to see the remake of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE truly understand why the first knocked the breath out of people when it was released? If not, don't we at least owe it to them as Art to explain?

Count Gore once said that the fans who like the remakes don't care about why the originals were classics; they don't work for them. My argument is, why should we tailor Art to people just so they 'get it?' If they don't like the originals, isn't it better to shrug and say "Oh well; pearls before swine" than try and capture an audience with less-than-discriminating taste?

I understand completely that people are moved by different things, which is why I enjoyed THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and disliked intensely FROM DUSK 'TIL DAWN and the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD. Others disagree, and good for them. But I'm able to recognize what it is that makes a classic film (or book, or play, or painting, or concerto) even if I'm unable to appreciate the work itself.

Failing to completely comprehend or appreciate a work of Art at first glance is no reason to modify or abandon it, any more than carpenters should stop working on houses when the work becomes difficult or authors should stop writing when the book reaches 500 pages. Sometimes the difficulty itself provides the final rewards for the effort, just as the special language is the reward of "Othello" or "Ulysses" or “A Christmas Carol.” Taking these works and ‘adjusting' them to the perceived sensibilities of the audience does a disservice to both the Art and the audience that's meant to appreciate it.

But perhaps I worry needlessly. At the end of the article announcing this edition, there is a long comment section, and almost unanimously everyone who commented was appalled by the idea of a simplified edition. The wanted to read the unexpurgated book, with its ‘outdated dust' intact, and didn't accept the defense put forth by the author.

And for that, I say, “God bless you, everyone!” 

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

DECEMBER
2011

 

A few thoughts with regard to the Season...

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

At this time of year, perhaps more than any other, thoughts often turn to what is commonly referred to as "Christian charity." (I offer that with no disregard to the work of other denominations or beliefs, nor that of an agnostic or atheistic nature; I simply brand it with the traditional label.) This is the time when many seem to go out of their way to be compassionate to those less fortunate. Salvation Army kettles stand outside most stores, and buyers often unconsciously reach for a few dollars to deposit while making their way to and from their destinations. Food banks and kitchens see a swell of donations, and gatherers are often found at these same store entrances, asking for an extra jar of peanut butter or can of peaches. Many Christmas concerts and other events sponsor free admission with the donation of a canned food item. (Here on the Lost Coast, a local movie theater offers free movies on Saturday mornings for a donation - and local teachers also chaperone the event so parents can drop off their children and do some much needed Christmas shopping in private.)

I believe this is a good thing. One strength of man's nature is his concern with those less fortunate. It separates him from the other animals, many of whom operate under the survival of the fittest, leaving their weakest to perish for the good of the pack or pride. One of the reasons for the current spirited debate in the land is that many are expressing their dissatisfaction that the "Haves" are outpacing the "Have-Nots" at an obscene rate, and with very little fault to be found in those at the bottom of the ladder. (I choose not to join this particular debate, except to note that it appears many protesting loudest that "those people should get a job" and "why should my tax dollars support those who can't support themselves" proclaim themselves avid followers of the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate at this time of year, and whose most forceful sermon consisted of "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me..." without any qualifiers.

But it appears that charity offered is sometimes looked at with a jaundiced eye. There are murmurs of "enabling," and cries that "This won't even make a dent in the problem!" This isn't a new phenomenon; Dickens wrote of it himself at the end of "A Christmas Carol," remarking on Scrooge's transformation:

"Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him."

Stephen King is a literary force of nature. There's simply been no other modern author with his popularity or readership. I find this to be a good thing also, because I think Mr. King is one of the finest writers of a generation, and his stories examine the human condition in modern America as incisively as Mark Twain examined the turn of the 20the century, and Charles Dickens examined Victorian England. He is sui generis, unlike any other artist, and his fame and talents have made him more than a little wealthy as a result.

He is also what used to be known as "a pillar of the community." He is deeply vested in Bangor Maine, where he makes his home, and has contributed untold numbers of dollars to local hospitals, libraries, and local projects (building a little league field, among other endeavors). He is steadfast in giving back, and using his wealth to make life better for those around him. He is a source of pride and honor in Maine ; I know this first hand, for I have many human companions that make their home there. And though I've never met him personally, I believe he embodies the old-fashioned work ethic of helping those less fortunate, because he has been very fortunate. In other words, Christian charity.

Recently, I came across the following news item; it concerned Mr. King's recent attempts to help those in his state after federal funds for home-heating were cut drastically. I'll let you read the article first by clicking HERE. Go ahead; I'll wait. 

Now, please go back and read the comments section at the end of the article. I'll wait again; take your time.

Remember what I stated above about Mr. Scrooge, and peoples' reactions to him? You might reread the comments again, if your blood pressure can stand it. For like many, some simply can't seem to wrap their thoughts about one man's compassion for his fellow man. They put their own spin upon it, view the actions through a distorted prism of their own prejudices, and of course offer their opinions, all from the safety of their computer screens.

Let me offer a few of my opinions, if I may. (This, after all, my crypt, so my rules apply.)

Stephen King reached his pinnacle of success through very hard work and not a little luck. He has, I believed, recognized the luck factor and concentrated on working as hard as he can at his craft, trying to better himself and his talents to the utmost. What he owes anyone, if he owes anyone anything , is simply the next story, the next novel, or the next film. (If indeed he owes us even those; some might consider his talents a gift .) Anything else  he offers to the public, either personally or, in this case, financially, is generosity. Mr. King earned his money the old fashioned way, and is not obligated to share outside of his family responsibilities. After seeing to their needs, Mr. King is free to spend his income on a fleet of Mazarattis, collecting Ming Dynasty pottery, sailing the world on a private yacht, or purchasing the Elephant Man's remains. He can even, if he so chooses, travel to Maine 's rocky Atlantic coast, take all of his millions of dollars one by one and fold them into Origami swans, to scatter over the waters. This is America ; it's his money.

Now, the fact that he chooses not to do those things; the fact that he chooses to use his fortune to lighten the burdens of others, is also his choice, and he is free to make it without debate, criticism or comment. (Yes, I understand freedom of speech and expression, but just because you can speak your mind doesn't necessarily mean you should . There's a very good reason the authorities remind us we have the right to remain silent; would that more people would exercise that right...) He owes nothing to anyone, and that includes explanation. To those who suggest if he really wanted to help he should run for office, or become politically involved...well, that's your hobbyhorse to ride, and Godspeed. That doesn't need to be his; he writes, and very well, and that's where his passion is. Anything else is ancillary.

I think that Mr. King should be applauded, without reservation. I think he should be held up as an example to everyone about how one person can make a difference in the world simply by doing something; others may not have Mr. King's riches, but they can easily have his compassion, and perform an act of their own choosing. No action is too small; the faintest vibrations at the bottom of the ocean can grow minute by minute to become a tsunami, and we've seen how powerful a force that can be.

To those who wish to give of their time, their money, their talents, their passions, and themselves during this season of gift-giving, there should only be one response: thank you! And if for some reason you find that beyond your powers of gratitude, give the gift back, stay silent, and move along.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I've often stated that those who are fans of Horror and the Dark Fantastic are not dwellers in darkness, but acolytes of the light, who use the terrors for catharsis and contrast to the sunlit world. Life isn't fair, the universe owes mankind nothing, fate can be a roll of the dice, but in the end there is justice and revelation and hope. Forgive me for quoting myself, but this was how I phrased it in last year's Christmas essay:

"For those who shy away from the terror and dread of the Dark Fantastic tale, there is indeed truth in the perception that darkness is a mitigating factor. But I say again, we do not celebrate the darkness; we face it and walk boldly through it to embrace the light. The worst may come, but not yet. Right now, all is well. The nightmare is over, and we've awakened.

Those of us who love and understand Horror are not revelers in the dark.

We're simply not afraid of it."

I've personally been part of both a Monterey independent film festival and an auction of Dark Fantasy material to help raise funds to battle cancer; several haunted attractions have organized food drives during their October events; some HorrorHosts and fans are joining together to save historic landmarks such as the cemetery where George Romero filmed NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD ; every year I perform my show at the Humboldt County Library in honor of Family Literacy Night, which provides free books for young people, I've take part (along with the other Patient Creatures) in a televised blood drive, and two years ago I helped to host a day-long concert in Ohio with my friend A. Ghastlee Ghoul and many others to pay the medical expenses of local television personality and late HorrorHost legend Dr. Creep.

I've found, contrary to what may be a sinister image, most Horror and Dark Fantasy fans and performers are dedicated, generous and committed individuals, all more than willing to lend a hand (or claw, or razor-fingered glove, or tentacle, or…) to help those in need, giving their time to their individual causes and passions; mine happens to be cancer, because of the loss of some human companions close to me, and reading, because of my love and dedication to literature. Others I know are dedicated to ending hunger, fighting poverty, funding the arts, keeping children healthy, protecting animals and people from abuse. The list is long, and the generosity runs deep, and if you are so moved during this season of love and good will towards men, may I suggest the following worthy organization:

Scares That Care.

Scares That Care is a charitable organization dedicated to helping sick children; those stricken with cerebral palsy, leukemia, and other diseases. They also have two subdivisions: “Scares For Pairs,” for helping fight breast cancer, and “I Helped Kane,” a program partnered with actor Kane Hodder (Jason from FRIDAY THE THIRTEETH ) to help children suffering from serious burn injuries.

Founded by filmmaker Joe Ripple (also one of the producers of the Cox Point Haunted Mansion attraction, where the Patient Creatures and I have appeared), Scares That Care have put on celebrity benefit dinners, costume contests, silent auctions, and other events. They've partnered with Horror and Science Fiction conventions such as HorrorFind and ShriekFest, and specialty Horror companies such as Teddy Scares toys, and among those who've giving their time and support to the organization are Margot Kidder, Ernie Hudson, Patricia Quinn, Linda Blair, Bruce Campbell, the aforementioned Mr. Hodder, and the Patient Creatures. (I'm very proud of them!)

There are many ways to assist this worthy organization; you can purchase merchandize from their online store; you can donate macabre items for their auction; if you are planning a Horror or Dark Fantasy convention, attraction or event you can partner with them. You can also donate your time to the organization in several ways. If you're interested in learning more about Scares That Care, you can log onto their website at http://scaresthatcare.org/site/.

In this time of year, when too often the emphasis is on the commercial and material; when people complain that the spirit of the season has been lost in the frantic shuffle of the holidays, it's too easy to throw up one's hands and proclaim “Bah, humbug!”  But people like Mr. King and Mr. Ripple, and communities like Scares That Care, serve the spirit of the season, and those that are disdainful of mistletoe and holly or cynical about humanity's capacity for peace on earth would do well to emulate their examples. Or, as Mr. Dickens put it so adroitly:

“Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead…But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!... Spirit!...hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?... I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!''

It's very easy to complain and pass judgment; it's much harder to actually step outside of yourself and your home and do something. I applaud all those who do, throughout the rest of the year and especially at this time of Season's Greetings. And I urge everyone who is able to step towards the light.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

octoBER/
NOVEMBER
2011

 

"is torture art?"

To all my young fans and their families; this essay contain elements of an graphic nature concerning an very adult subject matter. I strongly advise these words for mature readers only, and very strongly suggest that my young friends or those easily offended bypass thIs PIECE. Thank you.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

SEPTEMBER
2011

 

Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Fandom are a contentious lot. Often brought together to celebrate the most obscure writings or images (there is a fan base devoted to the television series SHADOW CHASERS, an admittedly-clever 1980s television riff on GHOSTBUSTERS; it lasted all of three episodes), we will argue over the most persnickety details regarding the genre: who was the better author, Lovecraft or Poe? Which version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was the most effective? TWILIGHT ZONE or NIGHT GALLERY? STAR TREK or SPACE 1999? STAR TREK: which one? And on and on and on...

Usually these disagreements are good-natured, tossed about late in the evenings around tables loaded with favorite alcoholic beverages. They are loud and heated, by no more than sound and fury, and at the end of the night everyone shakes hands and goes about their business, probably to argue more the next day...

But sometimes there are controversies in any gathering of fans or any particular sub-category of Art; these are equally heated but far from frivolous, and much animosity is bandied about in these circumstances. I'm about to throw a huge stone into the pond of one such controversy; beware, the ripples are coming...

As with many fans, I occasionally frequent the blogs and pages of various Horror and Dark Fantasy groups, to catch up on the latest news, reviews, opinions and gossip. (But I do pride myself on, after a fair amount of time, turning the computer off and moving on to something else. I recommend this unreservedly to everyone.) On a recent such blog some filmmakers were discussing their current effort in production. They'd made a short preview of the film and were allowing it to be viewed on YouTube to generate interest and excitement. (The film and filmmakers will remain nameless throughout this essay in the interest of fairness; they aren't present to defend themselves against any statements I intend to make.)

The film, to my eyes, looked like another in the long line of "torture porn" projects; a woman held against her will, tortured and degraded by her captor. These are not films to my liking, and I tend to distance myself from them. Mind you, I'm not in favor of censorship; if the creators wish to make these movies, and their audiences wish to watch them, they are welcome to do so. But from my personal point of view, in the interest of my freedom of opinion, I find them abysmal and abhorrent, and will offer that critique if asked. I watched the preview, and although professionally filmed and acted, I found nothing to pique my interest in the upcoming movie.

Now, apparently some others found the preview wanting as well; I don't know their reasons, because I didn't visit the comment section of the site. But many were discussing their dislike for the clip, and one of the film's participants decided to defend their work. All well and good; everyone should have that right, and a solid discussion helps to bring these issues out into the forefront for intelligent discussion. But - that is not what she did; instead, she chose to attack those dismissing the preview.

"I'm sorry that this isn't one of your Hollywood remakes, or a safe Horror movie; some of us like to see Horror that isn't rated PG13! Some of us don't like our Horror safe; we like real Horror!"

(I'm paraphrasing the comment; I didn't feel right to offer the verbatim quote without having the writer here to defend the comment in person. You'll have to trust me that I've presented an accurate version of the writer's argument, and I believe I have done so.)

Good Mother In Heaven...here we go again...

I'm going to ignore the "PG13" part of that argument, and simply send you to my THOUGHTS & REVERIES essay of July 2011, where I discuss exactly this issue. I still stand by those thoughts, and believe they speak for themselves.

Instead, I'm going to address (yet again!) why I am fed to the teeth with the idea that there are fans of "real" Horror, and those of us who don't enjoy seeing humans humiliated and caused intense pain "aren't real Horror fans". I'm tempted to use stronger language simply from a growing lack of patience, but I will simply answer with: nonsense!

First of all, who judges? Who determines which fans are "true" fans or not? And if we don't care for their judgment, is there a higher court we can appeal to? Some Supreme Court Of Public Opinion & Taste In The Horror Genre that hears such appeals, preferably on the first Monday in October?

You don't enjoy the SAW films (I refuse to use the term 'franchise'), you've never seen a movie by Dario Argenta, and you think Lovecraft was an overrated author, so you're not a "real" Horror enthusiast? Truly? Even if you have every single Universal Monster release in your DVD collection, you've given lectures at colleges on the complete works of Richard Matheson, and you designed the title sequence for Elvira's latest television series? It seems ridiculous, I know, but how do you differentiate? Saying that you dislike a certain book or movie or any other work of art is simply saying, "it didn't move me or work for me as well as it did for you, therefore I did not care for it". There is no more weight to be given to the discussion that that; to make personal taste an arbitrary requirement for inclusion into genre fandom is insulting and belittling, and says far more about the one doing the segregating than anyone else.

All of this should be self-evident; the fact that we have to keep repeating it is tiresome. The year that OUT OF AFRICA won Best Picture at the Oscars, many cried foul. I didn't; I think OUT OF AFRICA is a wonderful film. Many do not. I seem to be in the minority; should I suddenly stop liking it? Should I demand others enjoy it as much as I did? What foolishness. I think David Lynch's DUNE is a spectacular film worthy of the classic novel. I know I'm in the minority here, and I care not a whit. I'll still watch it when I can, and those that don't care for it can join me when I'm screening a different film that we'll all enjoy.

(I discussed this previously as well in my essay of July 2010, for all those denouncing the TWILIGHT series of books and films. And I repeat that wonderful comment by filmmaker Kevin Smith: “That's what I love about a comic book convention. People will come to a convention, stand there in a …Spock costume, and look at somebody in a (Chewbacca) costume, and say, ‘Look at that…geek'!” And on that note, I consider the discussion closed...)

But there is another issue that I do want spend some time addressing - the proclivity of the "torture porn" subgenre in Horror. Some people object to that label; let them object. For the sake of discussion I find it appropriate. For clarity let's define "torture porn" as a film that features on person causing physical and emotional distress on another. Often this is accomplished by use of sharp implements, and accompanies graphic makeup effects that simulate carnage and butchery. Quite often the distress is of a violent sexual nature; most of the victims in these films are women, and often appear nude and bloodied. The perpetrator is usually a male of group of males; sometimes they are subintelligent and rustic, at other times they are part of an underground society that encourages the torture, such as a film studio that makes violent "snuff" films or a resort where the wealthy can pay to brutalize. There is little in way of actual plot; the victims are stalked, captured, tortured, and in the final reel either escape and turn the tables on their captors (usually with one last twist that reveals the captors are still alive and well and going about their business as usual) or they succumb to the terror, and new victims are captured to begin the cycle anew. The only differentiating details are the pains and humiliations inflicted and the devices used.

Movies that follow this template are HOSTEL, HOSTEL 2, LIVE ANIMALS, CAPTIVITY, WRONG TURN, WOLF CREEK, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, A SERBIAN FILM, TURISTAS, THE COLLECTOR, and yes, for those who enjoyed them, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS and the SAW sequels. I don't understand their popularity. I do understand their commercial aspects; they're extremely easy to make, because the plot requirements are so limited. (Or seem to be.) Any aspiring filmmaker can rent or find a properly seedy, decaying location, cast a limited number of actors, and let the blood flow. As long as the camera is focused properly, the audiences should be satisfied.

All right; I know that last was extremely sarcastic. But who is the audience for these types of films? What draws them to view this as entertainment? Why would you devote two hours of time to indulge in the suffering of innocent people? Why would you want to partake in a movie whose sole purpose is images of cruelty? This isn't like a TALES OF THE CRYPT storyline, where an individual's greed, bigotry, inhumanity or criminal act is paid back with a brutal and gruesome comeuppance; the victims in these films are often simply random people in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is no sense of catharsis or justice meted out; the cruelty is for cruelty's own sake. The filmmakers in their own way ask the audience to be accomplices in these unspeakable acts, and to follow along with each barbarism. This is entertainment?

What is the message in these films? That anyone can be a victim? That violence comes unexpected, and your money and class can't insulate you from it? That no one remains untouched? Edward Albee already explored that in THE ZOO STORY, and very well indeed. That was back in the 1960s. What else do we need to know? That there are sick, twisted people ion the world, and they're everywhere, in suburban tract houses and country estates? That they wear the faces of your neighbor, your spouse, your best friend? This is news? I ask this not facetiously, or to be snarky; I genuinely want to know: what do these films offer as an examination of the human condition? What truths do they tell us about the human animal? what final parable can we extract as a reward for sitting through the carnage?

In one of his finest "Sandman" tales, Neil Gaiman postulates a convention of serial killers. They are gathered in the main ballroom listening to a lecture by The Corinthian, who is a nightmarish creation of Morpheus, the Sandman, himself. And during the lecture, Morpheus enters the hall and confronts his creation, who has earlier kidnapped and murdered a series of young boys for the purpose of eating their eyes.

And as he makes his way through the audience of astounded and fearful killers, Morpheus speaks softly, "You disappoint me, Corinthian. You were created to be humanity's ultimate nightmare, and what have you done? What have you shown to these humans you've preyed on? That there are scary things out there in the world?"

They already knew that..."

I can make a case for the film SE7EN , as an examination of the serial killer phenomenon in the urban landscape. I can make a case for FUNNY GAMES , as an indictment of the need to watch films of violence (although I don't approve of that movie; I think the filmmaker is trying to have it both ways, sternly moralizing to his audience while attempting to titillate them with the tortures on screen). I can even make a case for a brutal film such as the first AUGUST UNDERGROUND as a look at the pure banality of evil and cruelty (although the sequels dissolve into simply further carnage; the filmmaker should have stopped while he was ahead).

But only to a point. Because as the body counts pile up higher and higher, I think whatever worthy messages these sorts of films can carry, they have long been spoken and played out, and the directors, writers and audience should simply admit now that it's a case of bread and circuses, violence for violence sake, with nothing more to offer than a good paycheck for the blood and prosthetics designer.

We've had a time like this before, back in the 1970s, when the masked slasher era was ushered in by the original FRIDAY THE 13TH. ( HALLOWEEN, a much better movie, actual was the precursor to this subgenre, but I arbitrarily offer that movie absolution because it was so much better than any of the films that came after it.) And although there has been much nostalgia for this type of movie, I still consider the 1970s and 1980s as one of the worst decades in Horror because of these films. I have no love for THE BURNING and SLEEPAWAY CAMP and THE TENANT and MY BLOODY VALENTINE and PROM NIGHT and on and on ad nauseum.

At the time, several respected critics came out firmly against these types of films, where the camera's point-of-view was often that of the killer (causing the viewing to identify with the murderer instead of the victim), where the sexually promiscuous met with certain death, and where sharp implements were used to cut into invariably female flesh. These critics, including Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert and Harlan Ellison, found the movies misogynistic and cynical and bloodthirsty, and were pilloried in magazine letter columns and fanzines to the extreme by the movie's fans and defenders. They were called know-nothings, anti-Horror blue noses, and many regarded them as advocating censorship.

I think they were being responsible.

Look, no one likes to be the only person at the party that says, "Hey! This isn't as nice or as much fun as it should be!" People like that don't get invited to many parties. But occasionally someone has to note that perhaps, just maybe, the Emperor is stark naked, and if that's how you prefer your Emperor, fine. But some of us believe he should at least put a towel around himself... Our genre has embraced the likes of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and William Shakespeare, and to be associated with only the blood, gore and inhumanity of many of these efforts is an insult. We expect better, we demand better, and if we don't receive better, we make our feelings known. This isn't censorship; this is freedom of expression, the same that allows the filmmakers to create their projects in the first place.

We're not telling anyone they shouldn't be allowed to make these films, or see them if they really feel the need; don't lecture us that we're not partners in the genre, and have no place among you.

I have more to say on the subject, but I'm going to save my comments for the next two months, when I want discuss something that's been on my mind for quite some time. I'm going to take the next two months, through Halloween and November, to talk at proper length about this. I've been planning to examine this subject in depth for a good while, and these provide a perfect lead in to the truly important question...

That question being, simply: "Is Torture Art?"

I have my views, some of which may surprise you.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

AUGUST
2011

 

One can usually tell how well a job will be performed by the seriousness of those performing that job. This is something that Human Resource personnel have to evaluate when they interview a candidate for a position in their company. How does he carry himself? Will he put forth the extra effort to see that the job is done more than merely competently? Will he rise to each occasion when he is needed? Does he take this seriously, or is it simply another means to a paycheck?

Bear in mind that this doesn't mean the applicant himself has to be stone-dead serious; a good sense of humor and self-deprecation is often vital to good work habits. Grim people do not necessarily make better workers, and office comedians are not always slackers. Personalities vary; what is important is the mind-set that the worker brings to the task at hand. Is he serious?

Stephen King (who's being featured a great deal this month!) talks about the craft of writing, the craft by which he earns his living, but moreso, the craft to which he's dedicated his life. “Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page. I'm not asking you to come reverently or unquestioningly. I'm not asking you to be politically correct or cast aside your sense of humor…But it's writing , damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business…”

Now Mr. King doesn't mean you have to be humorless; many of his tales have marvelously comic episodes, and some march along to a dark sardonic strain. But as to the art itself, Mr. King is very serious. And well he should be; it puts the roof over his head, food on his table, and allows him the enviable ability to be his own boss. And while I believe talent is a huge factor, I would venture to say that Mr. King's serious dedication to his work is one reason he has been as successful as he is.

Mr. King's not alone in this, of course; some of my favorite authors are as equally dedicated. Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and many others approach writing as an almost holy chore; it's not something they have to force themselves to do; quite the contrary, they more often than not have to force themselves not to write! I believe that this dedication and seriousness attracts their readership; they understand that they will get a great deal of enjoyment from the work, but the also know that they are giving over their free time to somebody who takes this work very seriously, and will do their damnedest to make certain you are thoroughly entertained and enlightened.

Needless to say, not every author approaches their task in this manner; to some it simply is a day job, nine-to-five, and I believe the attitude shows in the work. And that, more often than lack of talent, is why the work often fails.

Let us be honest with each other: the genre that we love and admire, Horror and Dark Fantasy (and I take them very seriously, which is why I will always capitalize them)...as I was saying...Horror and Dark Fantasy, at their heart, at their core...are often very silly.

Now don't give me that dark look! Let's be honest; it's true! Ghosts, bogeymen, vampires, werewolves, zombies, slithering things from deserts and oceans far from man's experience...these are the things of children's nightmares, the shadows in the closet and under the bed and outside the window that terrify young mind's that aren't mature enough to realize that it's only tree branches or a pile of clothes of strewn toys, and they will look quite familiar when the lights are turned on.

We're privileged, like professional athletes (who spend their lives and make excellent money basically playing schoolyard games), to partake in something that some say we should have given up long ago. We play with scary things! We let our imaginations carry us, and deliberately try to recapture our youth and scare ourselves to death! We look at the Jack O' Lantern and don't see a carved pumpkin with a candle inside; we hear the scratching sounds along the ground in the cemetery and don't thing about autumn leaves drying and crackling underfoot. We indulge ourselves. And there's nothing wrong with that at all, I believe the ability to recaptured childhood is a noble and necessary quest in the world today. (Why we should want to so badly is something I will leave to the psychiatrists among us.)

So it would be very easy to have the creators of these terrors take their efforts lightly. Many have, and I'm certain we can all remember seeing movies or reading books and stories where the author didn't particularly care about the scares, didn't particularly find his efforts frightening, and left us feeling unfulfilled and perhaps a bit insulted. Why did I waste my time with this dreck?

But there are others - the honored in this field  -  who took their efforts very seriously, and reached down beyond the childish expectations of fright into the deep myth-pools of our darkest nightmares; artists who burrowed into themselves for the dark images and terrors that crept over them in the night, and translated these into symbols that touched us vividly. These are the books, stories, movies that stand the test of time and popular taste, and pay great respect to the forces of chaos that make our pulses race even while our reason tries to tell us there's nothing to be afraid of.

I can still recall quite clearly the passage early in Bram Stoker's "Dracula" where Jonathan Harker looks out of his bedroom window and sees the form of his host, Count Dracula, crawling down the side of the castle wall like a giant bat. The image is startling grotesque and frightening, and I felt then the vibrations of someone reaching deep into the subconscious and stirring the soup, writing not simply for money but to shake the reader out of any narrative complacency. This was different from many other books written; Mr. Stoker wasn't fooling around, he was serious!

I recall the weight of H. P. Lovecraft's dark prose, filling the senses with a rich and oppressive sense of foreboding and despair in "The Colour From Out Of Space", "The Outsider", and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". Here was a gentleman who took his horrors very seriously, and laid them out for all to see and fear. Edgar Allen Poe was also a master of the precise, carefully built terror, although his landscape was not usually the cosmos as Lovecraft's was; he was far more interested in the inner nightmares of tortured minds and souls. Read "The Black Cat", "The Pit And The Pendulum", "A Cask Of Amontillado", "The Tell-Tale Heart" and admire his almost mathematical precision with words and phrases. Any youngster who came to Poe and Lovecraft looking for a sure hand to guide them into the Dark Fantastic will certainly be changed forever, his senses sated until overflowing with the macabre.

Stories become classics because they have a strength about them that differentiates from the merely entertaining. Dr. Asimov's "Nightfall" is one such story, and the good Doctor had stated many times that he was genuinely puzzled why that story became so widely read; he was proud of it, but didn't think it extraordinary. But the travails of the inhabitants of a planet that never knew darkness counting down the anxious hours before night came to their world pacts an impact lesser tales simply don't possess; here was a writer different from other "space opera" authors, someone who took us outside our own senses and enabled us to see through alien eyes. Who wouldn't race to the next Asimov tale eagerly after this story, changed forever from the person who first picked it up?

Horror filmmakers have also signaled their desire to take the genre seriously. During the 1950s and 60s the "horror" that came to your local theater usually arrived by way of AIP or other independent distributors, and included such classic as NOT OF THIS EARTH, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS. The "scares", such as they were, were tame and trod upon well-traveled ground. And it may have remained that way but for a small film company out of Pittsburgh , with an exceptionally talented writer/director at the forefront.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD went through the country like a bolt of lightning, leaving audiences and critics alike devastated in its aftermath. No one knew quite what to make of it, but nothing like it had ever been seen before. Frustrated at a lack of funds to make "the great American motion picture", the powers-that-be decided to make a Horror film, on the grounds that such low-budget films always made money. But if they were going to make a Horror film, they were determined to make the most frightening and realistic one possible. Their dedication showed through their lack of funds, and a copy now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. As one critic in the genre noted, "Perhaps they succeeded in making the great American motion picture after all."

Other directors followed suit. While many in Hollywood showered disdain on Dark Fantasy, some of filmdom's greatest talents saw nothing demeaning in the genre; indeed, for many, it freed their imaginations and creative impulses. Alfred Hitchcock dedicated the same care he gave to his suspense films NORTH BY NORTHWEST and REAR WINDOW on PSYCHO and THE BIRDS, taking an absurd premise in the latter instance and turning it into a Technicolor nightmare that shocked audiences in it's uncompromising terror. Roman Polanski came to this country from his critically acclaimed work in Europe (where his second film REPULSION was already a genre masterpiece) and helmed ROSEMARY'S BABY with nary a thought that the project was beneath him. (Indeed, he campaigned hard to write and direct that film.) And certainly Mr. Kubrick didn't feel he was 'slumming' with his classics 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and THE SHINING. However you may feel about the finished products merits, Mr. Kubrick obviously lavished on them the same care and respect that he gave to his 'serious' anti-war film PATHS OF GLORY. He rightly saw THE SHINING as a chance to do something original and honest in the genre, and embraced the challenges with his usual dedication to detail and imagery.

I suppose this is why I'm extremely disappointed with what passes for "Horror" that shows up at the Cineplexes these days. I don't feel many of them have their heart in it. Many movies are made because their similar to other hit films and will probably make some money, they're based on popular originals (books, graphic novels) and the studios hope that success will translate into box office, or they're remakes of movies made before that the producers hope will still find favor with the fans. Even with low budget productions (especially with low budget productions, in many cases) there doesn't seem to be serious care put into the movies; into the art direction and makeup effects certainly, but not into the very soul of the production. Too often they copy what worked before, or are variations of what worked before, or are homage to what worked before. I fear that few of the filmmakers working have ever stopped, taken a full inventory of their own psyche, and confronted what was darkest within them. What really scares me? What leaves me drenched with sweat when I awake from a nightmare? How can I translate that into universal images that will terrify others?

Yes, I understand there are exceptions, and yes, not every movie has to have the s turm und drang of an Oscar contender. But to the excuse that "Hey, some movies are just supposed to be fun!” I offer the counterargument: aren't some movies supposed to be serious? Or don't you feel at least the creators should take them seriously? Because there are only so many hours in a day, and so much money to be spent, why should you hand over your hard-earned cash to someone who doesn't take your needs seriously? And if they don't take your needs seriously, why should you honor that work?

I don't demand much from any form of entertainment, honestly. If it's a comedy, I expect to laugh. If it's a drama, I expect to be moved. And if it's Horror, I expect to be frightened. And having read or sat through so many comedies that weren't funny, dramas that weren't moving and Fright Films that didn't make the pulse race one bit, all I ask of the artists behind their works is, can we please take things seriously, and not waste my time? 

And I suppose the point I've been trying to make is if you put down a book or leave a movie dissatisfied by what you've just read or seen, it might be worthwhile to consider whether those presenting the work were being serious in their attempts...or simply fooling around.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JULY
2011

 

I've recently had the pleasure of recommending the film INSIDIOUS to various human companions, and been extremely gratified when I'm told that the movie "scared the hell out of them!" Wonderful! What more can you ask in a Horror film than that? I've also been pleased to hear many critics, including those residing in the genre itself (such as my friend Shane Dolman of VIDEO WATCHDOG fame, Brad Mishka of BLOODYDISGUSTING.COM and Serena Whitney of DREAD CENTRAL ) enjoying the latest effort of James Wan and Leigh Whannell.

One thing that has taken me greatly by surprise is the admission by many (including Mr. Dallmann) that the film is as effective as it is, while still being rated PG-13. I had never given the film's rating much thought; indeed, I don't pay much attention to any film's rating, being  well past the age where it seems to matter, unless I'm recommending something to my younger friends and fans. But after hearing some discussions, and perusing several online reviews, I've come to the conclusion that many fans of the cinemafastique have an aversion to any Horror movie that isn't rated R, and a “Hard R" at that. (By which I assume that they mean copious bloodletting, foul language, nudity and sexuality, often presented in a dark or twisted manner, and a subject matter that would be taboo in more mainstream circles.)

Now, on one hand, I do understand their arguments; after all, the less conscious a filmmaker is of his intended audience, the less censorship (including self-censoring) that influences his artistic choices, and the less oversight by committee (be they studio executives or angered parental affiliations), the more likely the artist will be able to present an original and satisfactory work of art, whether you're discussing a drama, a love story, or a Fear Film. Especially in the field of the Dark Fantastic, the artist must feel free to present his work and scares as honestly and unhindered as possible, to achieve the greatest effect possible. Among the many R rated films that meet this criteria, both in ferocity and artistic achievement, are PSYCHO, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, NIGHT OF THE LIVIGN DEAD, PAN'S LABRYNTH, ANGEL HEART, SE7EN, and ALIEN.

But my concern lies in the sentence above that reads, "...the artist must feel free to present his work and scares as honestly and unhindered as possible, to achieve the greatest effect possible." As a storyteller myself, nothing weighs on my mind more, and there is nothing I strive harder to perfect. But is it necessary to use blood, violence, gore and other extreme tools to always achieve this effect?

Let's talk about this a bit...

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

First, let's be aware that the film ratings system is actually only 50 years old, more or less. Before this there was a "Production Code" in Hollywood implemented by the Hayes Office to make certain major studio films adhered to public standards of decency. Villains had to be punished, language had to be sanitized, and even certain subject matters were off limits. That fact that so many groundbreaking films were made that still packed a powerful adult punch is a tribute to the artists working under these conditions. prior to the Production Code, Hollywood films could feature nudity (tastefully done, of course) and subject matter that was more risqué. (Which is why motion pictures were considered "junk" entertainment, coarser than novels or the legitimate theater - and theater was also run under some very tight restrictions and considered 'less than wholesome entertainment'.)

With the influx of foreign films in the 1940s and 50s - films made without the stifling influence of the studio Production Code - adult subject matter and technique was invited into the cinemas of America . Many movie houses in large cities would dedicate themselves to showing "art films"; foreign films that featured nudity, violence, sexual situations and subjects that couldn't be found in mainstream cinema. Because these were considered "artistic" films, the many obscenity laws were bypassed, and adults found an appreciation for the work of daring filmmakers as Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, and other lesser-known names. And because you can't put the horses back in the barn when the gate is wide open, American filmmakers, particularly the independent and exploitation filmmakers, stepped onto the bandwagon and began to put more adult material into their features. This was the independent cinema boom of the 1950s and 60s, which brought us both John Cassevetes and Roger Corman, and others in-between.

In order to meet the demand for information on these films, so that parents could make an informed choice on where to send their youngsters, the studios instituted the voluntary movies codes familiar today. The original codings were G for General Audience release (the family audiences), M for Mature Audiences (some subject matter wouldn't be suitable for most children), R for Restricted Audiences (no children under 17 admitted without parent or guardian, leaving the choice up to the families, because of subject matter, language, nudity, and violence) and X for Adults Only (No one under 17 admitted even if the parents give their OK). Note that an X Rating, at this time, didn't mean pornography, as it does today; it simply means that the subject matter is for adults only, and several Hollywood films appealing to adults were rated X under this system, among them the notable LAST SUMMER, LAST TANGO IN PARIS, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and the only studio film rated X to win the Oscar for Best Picture, MIDNIGHT COWBOY.

Notice that these ratings were voluntary; they were not trademarked or copyrighted by the studios. Because of this, the filmmakers could rate the films themselves, and so the adult entertainment industry co-opted the X rating to mean pornography. At that point the studios refused to release any movies rated X, and the theater chains (often financially obligated to the studios) refused to show these films. Thus, truly adult films were shamefully left by the wayside. There was an attempt for some years to use a newly-devised rating, NC-17, for adult films, but it didn't have the original prestige of the X rating, nor the studio push behind it, and it died a rather ignominious death. (It's hardly used at all today, and the few films that opt for adult treatment and release are often sent out UNRATED. More on this in a moment...)

The M rating was eventually morphed into the PG rating, for Parental Guidance, since Mature can have several meanings. (Note the sarcasm; while you and I, my friends, may truly understand what a "mature" movie may be, some viewers need things spelled out to them completely.) Following the release of two Steven Spielberg related projects ion the 1980s, INDIANA JONES & THE TEMPLE OF DOOM and GREMLINS, a new rating was devised for in-between PG and R: PG-13 , meaning those under the age of 13 were recommended to by pass that particular film. This came about from the outcries of parents upset by the violence and darkness of the two films in questions, violence and imagery that wasn't strong enough for an R rating but was too intense for PG.

(Just as an aside, I remember clearly the release of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN to theaters in 1971. Although there was nothing disagreeable in the movie, the intensity of the film worried the studio executives, and they released the film as a G movie with the following caveat: "May Be Too Intense For Younger Viewers". Today the movie would no doubt be a PG film, but at the time G, like X, hadn't yet come to mean a certain type of film; i.e. a family film; it simply meant there was nothing offensive in the movie in question.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

You may ask: what determines how a movie is rated?

I will answer: I haven't the foggiest idea.

Truthfully. I seen some films rated PG that I believe should be rated R; I've seen PG films that I feel should be rated G, and I don't have the slightest idea what the criteria is for each movie. I know there are levels of degrees that films must adhere to: one use of an obscenity, but not two; a woman's bare breasts, but not a fully nude image; some blood splatter from a gunshot, but no sharp objects penetrating the flesh. Plus a number of other points that remain completely obscure to me. (Being an advocate of free speech and against censorship, I am amused by the thought of a poor soul sitting in a darkened theater, whose soul job is to watch the films not for enjoyment, but to check off a list of offensive material. I see him sitting there with his clipboard, checking off each item carefully! Aha! A naked posterior! Yes! A curse word! Gotcha! Blood! Let's count 'em up and see what we've got! )

There's a marvelous moment in the film BE COOL, the sequel to the very popular GET SHORTY. Both films feature John Travolta as a mobster who begins working in the film industry. Because criminals aren't necessarily known for their social graces, Mr. Travolta's language in GET SHORTY is sprinkled generously with colorful invectives, and the movie is rightly rated R. In BE COOL he is more refined, and the film is rated PG. But there is a marvelous exchange where Mr. Travolta is talking to another character about the rating system, and the vagaries that abound in it, and at one point he says, "Do you know in a PG movie you can only say the work f@#k one time?" I find that exchange delightful; not only does he use that word one time (never again in the movie), earning BE COOL a PG rating, but it's a sharp commentary on Hollywood and its use of language. Thank you Elmore Leonard for that bit of wit!

Now, I am sympathetic to the parents out there who try and monitor their children's viewing habits. I understand that they want a system that advises them about what to expect in a film, and they would certainly embrace any system that enables them to make better informed choices.

The problem lies in the fact that the system as it stands, in my opinion, doesn't do what it's supposed to. The simple letter system really doesn't let any parent know what to expect. And because each parent brings their children up individually, how do you determine what is offensive to the majority? SCHINDLER'S LIST is rightly rated R for honestly depicting the horrors of war and the Holocaust, but how do you differentiate those horrors with the ones found in HOSTEL? And if a parent believes their youngster should be able to view a movie that depicts history accurately, but doesn't want them seeing a charnel house film,. isn't that their right? The same difference lies between THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and  LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Both are rated R, but many religious parents wanted their children to see the film depicting the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus and would be mortified at taking them to see the rape/murder/revenge drama. (Please note I am not making a critical judgment here; I didn't care for THE PASSION OF THE CHIRST as a movie, and haven't seen the remake of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. I'm simply stating the argument that both films are said to contain the same offensive material; obviously, this is an oversimplification.) And how is the R rating helpful when parents, out for a movie and unable to pay for a babysitter, bring their toddlers to HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES? This has happened far too often to be an isolated phenomenon; don't the ticket takers look askance at them when they're purchasing? Do he parents ignore the looks of fellow moviegoers as their children begin crying during the moments of loud, nightmarish terror? Will the money saved on babysitters be used late in life for therapy?

If you look at some movies now, under the letter rating, they are beginning to use more detail to help people make informed choices. Often under the R rating you'll see "Contains images of sexual violence, gore and harsh language." Although that's not completely helpful, I find that much more informative than the simple letter rating.

One film not listed above in my designation of classic Horror Films is George Romero's classic DAWN OF THE DEAD. Many may not remember that this film was one of the rare releases to go into distribution without any rating. (The rating system is voluntary , but as stated before, many if not most cinema chains will not show a film unless it has been submitted and rated, which smacks to me of collusion, and should be illegal, but that's an argument for another time and place.) Mr. Romero recognized that his film, filled with (at the time) graphic and over-the-top violence, would undoubtedly receive an X rating, unless it was trimmed. Mr. Romero did not feel the artistic need to trim the film; furthermore, he decided that there were enough drive-in venues around the country that had far more relaxed standards of distribution, that he felt the movie would do well financially without the chain theaters. He took a gamble that if the movie proved successful, some of the chains would consent to carry it regardless of its lack of rating, and he was absolutely right: DAWN OF THE DEAD is the most successful film widely released without a rating attached.

But Mr. Romero was also a parent, and a responsible artist, and the print ads for the movie contained the following warning: "This film contains no scenes of sexuality; however, it does contain many scenes of graphic violence, and is recommended for adults only." I don't know about you, but I find that disclaimer very helpful, containing much more detail than a simple letter.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Now...let's discuss storytelling...

When I'm entertaining an audience, and I give them the choice of a funny tale of a scary one, inevitably I am told, "Scary! Make it really scary!"

You have but to ask, effendi...

Most times while I'm telling my story, I'm watching the reactions of those before me, deciding who to play to, where to milk a long pause for effect, who might be the most nervous (not always good, as they are often apt to scream too early; better to play to someone less frightened and modulate the performance). The fact is, there will always be those who aren't frightened by anything I do; either they're inured to fear, or simply don't have the suspension of disbelief to imagine aurally. On the other side there are those who would leap out of their skins if I frowned in their general direction. The vast majority are listening intently, perfectly willing to be afraid if the storyteller is skillful and nothing interrupts the flow of the tale. (There are so many things that can go wrong; a parent trying to be funny, poking the listener at a wrong moment; a sound from outside or the ill-timed entrance of a late arrival; even something as innocent as a sudden sneeze - all these can work against the slow build of the Horror Tale. This was especially true when I worked at Six Flags for FRIGHT FEST , and had to contend with lights, buzzers, roller coasters, screaming children, and other distractions right outside my storytelling theater. That I was able to over come much of this I attribute - modestly - to experience and showmanship.)

Some of the stories I tell do indeed feature some graphic acts of violence or some gore; I tend not to tell stories that use these injudiciously, but which have an overreaching morality to them, like the Grimm Brothers did. (I also think it's almost impossible - though not completely! - to tell a Horror Tale without some small violence and grue, if only the staking of the vampire or the rotting corpse rising from the grave. Some tales do manage to skate by on mere suggestion - "The Turn Of The Screw" by Henry James being probably the best and most famous - but as Stephen King points out in his marvelous essay at the front of his "Night Shift" collection, "There will be some who will object…saying that Henry James is not showing us a car accident…It's a nonsensical idea. They are still showing us the car accident; the bodies have been removed, but we can still see the twisted wreckage and observe the blood on the upholstery. In some ways the delicacy, the lack of melodrama, the low and studied tone of rationality…is even more terrible than Lovecraft's batrachian monstrosities or the auto-de-fe of Poe's ‘The Pit And The Pendulum.' "

In choosing the tales to tell, and in the telling, I am very much aware of my audience; their youth, their attention span, their nervousness, and exactly what they seem to be looking for in the Dark Fantastic. Some want buckets of grue; other pull away at the faintest hint of carnage. I'm well aware I can't please everyone, and I'm also well aware that, hard as I try, I won't scare everyone either. It's a failing proposition to try and make everyone jump, so I concentrate on those whose disbelief is more pliable, and for those left cold, I'm forced to shrug and go back to the drawing board.

I believe these methods apply to the most skilled of storytellers, whatever media they embrace; film, theater, song, the visual arts, puppetry, you name it. A good talespinner finds the right tale to tell, matches it to his intended audience, and tells it the most effective way he can, using his entire repertoire of tools at his disposal, and employing them skillfully to the greatest effort.

Bear that last in mind; we're coming into the home stretch...

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I was troubled by the attitude I'd noticed above; that PG films can be less effective than R in producing Horror. Could this be true? As an exercise I went onto the Internet (a most convenient tool for this type of searching, even for a Luddite as myself) and found rather easily the following films rated PG:
 
JAWS
THE BIRDS
POLTERGEIST
THE RING
DIABOLIQUE
THE OTHERS
FRAILTY
NOSFERATU (1979)
DUEL
THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975)
THE HAUNTING  **(G)**
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)
1408
THE FOG (1980)
WILLARD (1971)
THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE
TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)

Now this is by no means a comprehensive list; these are just films I happened to know fairly well, and recognized immediately. A few thoughts come to mind:

Again, the nature of how films are rated baffles me. Before looking at this list, I would have sworn - sworn! - that JAWS was rated R!  A modern masterpiece of Terror; a film that kept millions of people from setting foot into the ocean during the summer of 1975, rated PG? With the carnage and intensity of each attack? The distant spurting blood from the boy eaten on the raft? The face in the bottom of the boat discovered by Hooper during his traumatic night dive? The final fate of Quint? Astonishing. I'd have thought the film would be rated R simple from some of Robert Shaw's more colorful invectives during the third act of hunting the shark!

PSYCHO is rightly enough rated R, I assume because of the sexual situations in the film, even though as far as blood is concerned it's less violent and far more elegant than JAWS . But THE BIRDS rated PG? With the discovery of the farmer's ravaged body? The attack on the schoolchildren? (Putting children in danger is usually forbidden in all Hollywood productions; probably only Hitchcock could have gotten away with the attack being as visceral as it was for the time.) And what about Tippi Hedren's final confrontation in the attic, the flashlight strobing the action as the gulls and swallows tear at her flesh? PSYCHO and THE BIRDS are often mentioned in the same breath as two of Hitchcock's horrific masterworks; how so the disparity in their ratings?

Well, be that as it may, I believe the list above is a very good reference for films that manage to achieve their frightening intentions while still maintaining their PG status. Many of them are justified classics, and almost all have moments as terrifying as anything found in today's modern bloodworks. Who can forget that hideous clown doll sitting in the corner or the steak crawling across the counter before rotting away in POLTERGEIST? The body rising from the bathtub in DIABOLIQUE? The old woman speaking in the little girl's voice in THE OTHERS? (That scene chilled me even in the television advertisements.) The video images from THE RING? Kathleen Ross's blank, black eyes in THE STEPFORD WIVES? Donald Sutherland's final shriek in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS? (Which Stephen King insists should have been rated R, because of some graphic violence when destroying the half-formed pods.) The attack of the cat and the shadowy sexual assault in THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE?

What I found most surprising about the list was the rating for THE HAUNTING. G! One of the most terrifying movies ever made is rated G?!? Amazing...

I think I've proven my point; granted, one of the films listed above is a foreign film, and one was originally made-for-television. (Although DUEL was released theatrically after its initial broadcast and rated accordingly.) Still, the filmmakers took their material and presented it in the most effective manner possible, telling the tale with all the skill and care they possessed, and were satisfied to create a works that were bone-chilling and visceral without resorting to artificially inflating the coarseness of the production. And that is what we're really discussing.

I suppose Daniel Mann could have inserted graphic shots of Ernest Borgnine's ravaged corpse in WILLARD to ensure and R rating, but he didn't feel the need. Tobe Hooper certainly knew enough about graphic violence (with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE , EATEN ALIVE and THE FUNHOUSE) to make sure POLTERGEIST skated well across the line into R territory, but he didn't. (Perhaps Mr. Spielberg producing was partially responsible for this, but Mr. Hooper showed similar restraint when he directed the mini-series ' SALEM 'S LOT, so I'm inclined to credit his skill.) And there is a time-honored tradition in Horror that American filmmakers would routinely film much more graphic footage for their movies to be shown overseas, where foreign censorship was less stringent.

But I find that appalling, both as a storyteller and film viewer. I can't approve of adding gratuitous gore, violence and nudity to a movie simply to raise the stakes than I can approve of cutting those elements to censor movies. Remember what I said above: "Especially in the field of the Dark Fantastic, the artist must feel free to present his work and scares as honestly and unhindered as possible, to achieve the greatest effect possible." The key word there is honestly . Indulging in gratuitous shocks that don't really help the film or move the narrative forward isn't honest; it's pandering to an audience, just as removing or avoiding those elements is pandering to authority.

In the golden age of 1970s television movies (yes, there was a golden age; you may have missed it, but Horror fans get misty-eyed when recalling those times) the artist had to battle the networks' Broadcast Standards department to put anything into their works that was ferocious and unsettling. Indeed, if you look at the memos recei9ved from such television series as THE TWILIGHT ZONE, STAR TREK and NIGHT GALLERY, the networks forbid any imagery that was 'upsetting' to the viewers. (Which makes every thinking individual want to cry out "You Toad! That's what Horror is! Upsetting! Otherwise we'd all be watching HAPPY DAYS!"

In addition to the efforts of Rod Serling, probably no other producer at this time did more for Horror than Dan Curtis, the creator of DARK SHADOWS. Mr. Curtis, like Mr. Serling, was a fighter, battling the networks to make his programs as powerful and gut-wrenching as possible within the media. As producer and director, he worked with a number of excellent writers, most notably Richard Matheson, to bring forth some of the most frightening moments seen on the small screen: THE NIGHT STALKER and THE NIGHT STRANGLER, DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, and perhaps his crowning achievement, TRILOGY OF TERROR. Mr. Curtis went toe-to-toe with the powers-that-be, and the final segment with the Zumi Doll has stood the test of time as one of the most frightening stories ever presented.

Despite interference, Mr. Curtis was able to present a huge, whacking two-by-four of Terror directly to the skulls of aghast viewers across the country. He told the tale as well as he possibly could, to create the film exactly as he wanted. And it still shows. Along with Mr. Serling's efforts, it can be argued that sometimes the stifling restrictions imposed by outside factors and force the filmmaker to circumnavigate the 'easy' scare or jump, and reach deeper to create something far more disturbing and memorable. Discipline is not necessarily a bad thing; it allows a karate expert to shatter bricks rather than breaking his fingers.

I've been haunted for years by the declaration of Mr. Spielberg that he originally conceived JAWS as showing the shark fully throughout the picture, like the dinosaurs of JURASSIC PARK . It was only because the mechanism failed to work so often that he changed his direction and went with the Hitchcockean, unseen menace that permeates the film today. Would the movie have been as successful if the shark had worked perfectly and was clearly visible? It's hard to say with certainty, of course, but I don't think it would have been. Oh, it would have been well-made, certainly; Mr. Spielberg is extremely talented. It would have been a fun thriller, a good monster movie, but perhaps forgettable over time. But being forced to really confront the primal fear of "Just what's really under the surface of all this water?", of letting our imaginations do the heavy lifting and building the shark into the great force of nature that it became, Mr. Spielberg created what I still feel may be his finest picture. He was forced to work harder, and it shows in the finished product magnificently.

Consequently, I admire the first collaboration of Mr. Wan and Whannell, SAW. (I am less complimentary about the sequels, but understand that they had little to do with those.) I admired the cat-and-mouse suspense, and the genuinely shocking twist ending. I found it a well written, well-directed work. But I'm displeased by an interview that Mr. Wan gave regarding the movie. He stated (and forgive me now as I paraphrase; I don't have the original transcript of the interview, which was on television, in front of me, but I believe I represent Mr. Wan authentically), "When I saw the first cut of the film, I was so disappointed; it wasn't as strong as I hoped, and I thought we'd have a PG rating. So I went back and filmed some extra scenes of gore to ensure that we'd have an R."

That disappoints me on several levels, not the least of which is that Mr. Wan is a talented man, and he was unable in this instance to trust his instincts. He inserted extra carnage, not for the sake o the story, but simply to ensure that the movie would get a harsher rating. Strictly, I assume, to draw in an audience that only regards the ratings as a barometer of how frightening a Horror Film is. And I hope I've demonstrated above how wrong that attitude is.

Look, it's a free country; if you wanted the goriest, bloodiest, most offensive movie possible, literally dripping off the screen with grue, be my guest. If you're decision on the worth of a film is how coarse the language is, how naked the actors are, and how carefully their individual body parts get sliced and diced, have at it. (Don't be disappointed if I tend to pass on your invitation to accompany you; we do seem, after all, to have different tastes. Indiscriminate exploitative elements tend to bore me after a fact, and I start mentally preparing my shopping list at my favorite bookstore or contemplate refurbishing my crypt instead of watching the film.) As an ancient wise man once intoned, "That's why we have chocolate and vanilla."

But...if your demands on a storyteller (be it a filmmaker, novelist, songwriter, be it as it may) insist that he can only tell his tales in one visceral style, and nothing else can determine the artistic and commercial worth of the work, then you are handcuffing and straitjacketing him no less than the censor who demands that no carnage is appropriate, and must be stricken from the art.

I am an ardent supporter of INSIDIOUS ; I was astonished at its relative lack of violence while admiring its ability to genuine shock, startle and disturb. I am very pleased that many others from "Rue Morgue" to "Fangoria" magazines and bloggers across the Internet feel the same way. I'm indebted to my friend Shane for highly recommending the film to me after I was intrigued by the television ads. I am delighted that, as of today, it is the most successful film released this year in ratio of budget to box office. I found it adult, mesmerizing, intelligent, thought-provoking, visually arresting, superbly acted, and satisfyingly frightening, and I would champion whether it was rated G or PG or R or UNRATED, and I would hope to treat any other artistic work equally, as long as it was true to the creator's vision.

I admire it for what it is, rather than what it isn't.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JUNE
2011

 

Just a few short thoughts this month; after all, I am on Sabbatical. I hope you have fun with them; next month I'll be exploring the topic of movie ratings in depth, I promise.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

A few months ago, railing against the spate of remakes that Hollywood has been offering of late, I made a short list of books on my own shelf that I thought would make fine cinema. They were:

THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND
THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON
A WINTER'S TALE
FLOATING DRAGON
KOKO
THE HIGH HOUSE
OUR LADY OF DARKNESS
FROM THE DUST RETURNING
THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS
THE WHIMPER OF WHIPPED DOGS
THE BEAST THAT SHOUTED LOVE AT THE HEART OF THE WORLD
THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH
BAG OF BONES
THE SCARF
THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR
DOCTOR RAT
ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE
THE WASP FACTORY

Not long after I shared those thoughts, in a case of great minds thinking alike, the website Salon and blogger Bob Calhoun offered their list of SF, Horror and Fantasy books they thought Hollywood should consider. You can check out their opinions by clicking HERE.

I can't really argue with any of their choices; in many cases our suggestions overlap not only in specific works but in authors.

(To which I digress…as many of you already know, one of my favorite writers is Harlan Ellison. Not only is his prose fiction exemplary and acknowledged modern classic of literature, but he has one the Writer's Guild of America award times, more than any other writer, for his screenplays. They include “Demon With A Glass Hand”, his OUTER LIMITS episode that has taken on a life of its own as a superb SF dramatization, “The City On The Edge Of Forever”, almost unanimously considered the greatest STAR TREK episode ever filmed, and his contribution to the 1980s TWILIGHT ZONE revival “Paladin Of The Lost Hour”, featuring Danny Kaye's final performance and one of my favorite tales.

I had recommended both “The Whimper Of Whipped Dogs”, an award-winning fantasy based upon the Kitty Genovese murder, and “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart Of The World”, a tale of madness through time and space, as major works of Mr. Ellison that begged to be brought to the big screen. The suggestion by L. E. Merithew, that his groundbreaking “I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream” be adapted, easily trumps my suggestions, and it would lend itself easily to screen adaptation; in addition to the famous short story (one of the most reprinted stories in modern history), Mr. Ellison helped adapt the tale into a computer game that fleshed out the story's background and provided new material.

What's really required is a filmmaker who has immense respect for the written word, and isn't cowed by the label of a work being “unfilmable”; yes, I'm looking at you, Mr. Cronenberg! Stop hiding behind those people in the back of the auditorium…!)

In the spirit of these lists, I'm offering 10 suggestions on works that I think would make splendid films, but I'm also offering the reasons behind my choices. I think they're exactly the kind of thought processes that many studio executives are in tuned to. Anyone who wishes to pass this list along to their favorite VP In Charge Of Production, please be my guest...

BAG OF BONES and THE LIBRARY POLICEMAN, both by Stephen King.

Obviously Mr. King's name doesn't attract the box office it once did, probably because there was a glut of truly awful film adaptations of his work. But these two, besides being two of his best, should work very well on the screen. One main problem is that a lot of Mr. King's work is very rich in characterization and detail, and simply long. Although BAG OF BONES is not short, the story is a very basic haunted house tale, and can be streamlined without losing too much of the novel's details. It's also a strong character piece, and a great role to showcase a more mature leading man.

THE LIBRARY POLICEMAN is one of Mr. King's novellas, and I will point out that his novellas have produced some of his finest films, including THE MIST, STAND BY ME, 1408 and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Why? Obviously because being a shorter work, there's less to lose in adaptation, and unlike a short story, you don't have to pad the film with additional incidents, as with CHILDREN OF THE CORN or THE LAWNMOWER MAN. This tale is a terrifying story of childhood trauma and nightmare reaching from the past into the present, two of Mr. King's strongest themes. There's a hesitant love affair, a Lovecraftean creature with horrific powers, and a very dark subplot about child abuse that will give the film a social conscience subtext.

THE LIGHT AT THE END by John Skipp and Craig Spector, FEVERE DREAM by George R. R. Martin and SOME OF YOUR BLOOD by Theodore Sturgeon.

Vampires are very popular right now; here are two excellent novels that present both ends of the spectrum, with not a sparkling romantic among them...

Misters Skipp and Spector were two powerhouse young authors at the forefront of the "splatterpunk" literary movement back in the 1980s (a movement that produced, among others, Clive Barker). They co-authors several fine genre novels and short stories before going their separate ways. THE LIGHT AT THE END, their first effort, is still one of their strongest. It concerns punk vampires in the New York City subway system. Good heavens, the movie poster tag-line practically writes itself! Vampires! Punks! Subway Tunnels. This could easily be the cinematic heir to THE LOST BOYS, and far more literate.

But if you like your vampires more refined and artistic, you might try FEVERE DREAM. A black steamboat sails the Mississippi River during the 1800s, carrying a society of vampires from town to town. Think of the lushness of INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE or BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA. Mr. Martin is also the author of the novels that have inspired the very successful HBO series GAME OF THRONES, which will no doubt add to the word-of-mouth. This should please the TWILIGHT audience while bringing in the classic genre fans who don't care for teenage angst.

But if you want your vampires disturbing, look no further than the classic by Mr. Sturgeon, with a punchline that can shake the hardiest soul into queasiness. Quite controversial when it was first published, this story of a psychotic who might be a bloodsucker and the psychiatrist trying to discover the truth still packs a wallop. This is terrific psychological suspense that delves into blackest terror the gritty, ultra realistic way of PSYCHO. Let Gus Van Sant try his hand with this, or better yet, Martin Scorsese with his decaying urban motifs.

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL and VERONICA'S ROOM, both by Ira Levin.

If you must remake a film, how about choosing one that deserves to be remade? Ira Levin has been responsible for some dark cinematic classics. ROSEMARY'S BABY? Absolutely. THE STEPFORD WIVES? yes, the original, not the godawful remake. DEATHTRAP? Yes, in its own amusing way. But THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, a strong, satirical SF effort, didn't translate so well to the big screen. Director Franklin Schaffner, despite doing excellent work with the original PLANET OF THE APES and PATTON, somehow found this macabre effort beyond him, despite the presence of both Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier. But the novel is solid and disturbing, and certainly deserves another try to get it right. Perhaps Danny Boyle, with his sense of global disaster and military conspiracy in 28 DAYS LATER, might take a look.

But if someone's looking for a good low-budget thriller, VERONICA'S ROOM may be your ticket. A stage play, not as popular as DEATHTRAP but still horrifying, VERONICA'S ROOM pits a young woman in a mysterious house with three very strange antagonists, each attacking her sense of reality and refusing to let her leave the room she's imprisoned in. Four characters, one set, and a mounting sense of isolation and fear. Written far before the "torture porn" boom of recent years, the trapped heroine still recalls the doomed protagonists of SAW, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, CAPTIVITY, and, from the not so recent past but still powerfully frightening, THE COLLECTOR. The noose tightens slowly, and the uncompromising finale will leave many a hardened soul shaken.

BAD FALL by Charles P. Crawford.

If you're looking to attract the teenage audience, this fine, gripping young-adult novel should make a powerful film. The tale of a good student, Wade, who one year in high school falls under the charismatic spell of a new student, and begins a long, slow descent into evil. What begins as typical teenage pranks become more and more sinister, climaxed by a dark act of violence on Halloween. This is a masterfully written tale, with the subtext of how evil can quietly permeate even the most innocent setting, and corruption creeps up unsuspectingly on the best of young men. This could make a wonderful low-budget film in the tradition of BLUE VELVET, weaving its chills free of graphic carnage, earning its PG-13 rating.

The ODD THOMAS series by Dean Koonz and the REPAIRMAN JACK series by F. Paul Wilson.

Finally, every executive seems to be desperately seeking a “franchise”; a property that, if successful, will spawn several sequels equally profitable. What could be better than a series of books to base the films upon, in the manner of Harry Potter and James Bond? Odd Thomas is the creation of acclaimed author Dean Koonz, whose name recognition is almost equal to Mr. King, and whose previous works DEMON SEED and INTENSITY made successful transitions to the big screen. Thomas is a soft-spoken simple character who finds he has the ability to talk to the dead, leading to a series of terrifying encounters with the supernatural. There have been six Odd Thomas books so far, setting up a long series of sequels that, if faithful to the novels, should prove very lucrative.

Equally popular are the Repairman Jack novels by F. Paul Wilson, whose THE KEEP was filmed in 1983 by Michael Mann. A troubleshooter without a name, address, or social security number, Jack travels across the world “fixing” things. Many of his exploits are straight suspense, but the majority involve supernatural elements. Jack is the lone samurai, the restless avenger who walks the night, the man who can solve your problems for a price, and this archetype is always well-received in the cinematic world. Twenty or so years ago, Harrison Ford could have guided a film series every bit as successful as his Indiana Jones movies. Who can fill the shoes of Jack today? His fans eagerly await…

(And showing how great minds truly do think alike, I've just become aware that an Odd Thomas film is being planned for 2012. Well done, sirs! No need to thank me…)

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

10 suggestions, and not a remake or reimagining in sight! All that's required is for a savvy producer to grab the reigns and present some dark dreams for audiences thirsting for something different. The gauntlet is thrown, who will accept?

These are my possibilities; what are yours?

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

MAY
2011

 

More than a few years ago, just before his untimely passing, I had the great pleasure of meeting Isaac Asimov in Philadelphia at the annual Philcon SF convention. And something extraordinary he said at that time has stayed with me until now.

It was a rather extraordinary convention that year in many respects. I met and listened to Grand Master Fritz Leiber, met the amazing filmmaker Mike Jittlov and saw his wonderful feature THE WIZARD OF SPEED AND TIME , shook hands with award-winning artist Kelly Freas, met many delightful and talented craftsmen and artists, and in general made a huge nuisance of myself and had a marvelous time. But meeting Dr. Asimov and listening to his lecture, and the incredible answer to one very astute question, remains to this day.

He was finishing up his Q&A session, and announced, "I have time for one more question; let's make it a good one!" (Interestingly, several people used that phrase as a way to wrap up their panels that weekend, and inevitably the final question asked was a very good question indeed. I speculate those in attendance that year were the brightest and best of the fans...) A woman stood, and said, "I have a question, Dr. Asimov..."

And it was a good one.

Forgive my paraphrasing, but she said something to the affect of:

"You had a long and illustrious career writing Speculative and Science Fiction. You began writing about many of the things we take for granted now - robots, home computers, spaceflight, medical advancements, faster-than-sound airplanes - way back before any of these things actually were created; at the time, they were only ideas in the minds of scientists, inventors and authors. I was wondering, as long-lived as you are, and with all you've seen come to pass, if anything today is different that how you originally imagined it so long ago?"

An excellent question, and we all leaned forward to hear the Good Doctor's answer.

Dr. Asimov smiled wryly, and softly said the most amazing thing:

"In all honesty...I never thought I'd live to see anything that I wrote about come to pass!"

There was actually a gasp from the crowd, and he continued. "I mean, I knew intellectually that we would one day be walking on the moon. But if you'd told me that only 12 years after sputnik was launched, or 8 years after we launched an American into space, that we'd be landing on the moon, I'd have thought you were unrealistically optimistic. And yet it happened! "

"I've seen so many things that astonish me, things I wrote about - automated assembly lines in Detroit , organ transplants, microsurgery, the Space Shuttle and Space Station, farming the ocean, interplanetary travel with the Voyager spacecraft. I actually have a computer now, in my home in New York , and I use it to send manuscripts to my editor instantly ...and I never really thought I would live to see any of that."

And then he said something all too true. "We truly live in an age of miracles, and we so often forget that."

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

On March 5th, Emily Fennel, 26, a woman who'd lost her hand in a car accident five years ago, received a transplant right hand as a replacement. Six weeks later, she once again has two working hands and is on the road back to a normal life. Her doctors believe she'll one day have as much as 60% of the functionality of her original limb. 

Read that last paragraph over again, slowly.

I remember clearly, in a time not far past, when a person lost a limb, that was it. You adjusted to life with one less part of your body, and moved on. I remember a time when heart and kidney transplants were state-of-the-art and as apt to fail as succeed.

Now, we can transplant eyes, faces, arms; reattach fingers and hands severed, use tissue from other parts of the body to rebuild organs. Even more, the old prosthetic limbs are becoming more and more sophisticated, actually now providing sensory feedback like a natural limb.

I remember a time when cancer and AIDS was an automatic death sentence.

I remember a time when men lived to their 70s; women slightly longer. Now it's expected that many people may see their centennial; it isn't as unusual as it once was, and will become even less unusual in the decades to come. Some scientists are estimating human lives reaching 150 years.

Print out the preceding paragraphs and carry it around with you; then the next time your cable provider or auto mechanic tells you something can't be done, show it to him and loudly proclaim ANYTHING CAN BE DONE IF YOU WANT TO!

And let me know their reactions...

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

We live in a time of crisis. The Earth is warming. Natural resources are running out. Humanity seems constantly on the brink of war. There isn't enough food or enough water. The population is growing beyond our planet's means. Politicians are corrupt. We're running out of time, and it's too much for anyone to stop.

Nonsense.

Oh, don't get me wrong; there crisis are quite real. The situation is undoubtedly dire. What's nonsense is that nothing can be done.

Sometimes it seems we're mired down in far too much bickering to accomplish anything. Liberal versus conservative, young versus mature, dove versus hawk, capitalist versus socialist, red state versus blue. We spend a great deal of time arguing, and by arguing I mean shouting down the other side, demonizing your antagonist, and plugging your ears firmly when you don't want to hear the other side.

We can do anything. We can attach arms to people, for Heaven's sake! But far too often we simply choose not to do anything.

It goes against our grain. It's too difficult. It would interfere with our television viewing. I gave at the office. I don't want to get involved. I work hard enough five days a week; don't I get to just relax?

Well...yes, you do. But if it doesn't get done, it's not somebody else's fault then.

There is room for honest, vigorous debate in society. People of principle can disagree on basic values and not be the enemy. People can see two very different solutions to a problem, and spend a great deal of time hashing out their differences to arrive at a consensus and a possible solution. Compromise need not be a dirty word.

But today that's how it seems to be. Give no quarter, surrender no ground. Make the other look weak or foolish, or worse malicious. Advance an agenda at all costs, even if there are objections. Do nothing except ensure that your side wins.

But how little would we accomplish if astronomers, microbiologists, geologists, meteorologists, cosmologists, paleontologists, climatologists, engineers and mechanics held the same views. Most of the important discoveries have been made on the backs of other scientists' research, or through cooperative endeavors. No man is an island, and no society is one either. It takes everyone working at the top of their form to ensure that progress continues, and doesn't falter onto the rocks of confusion, misinformation, and conflict.

(Good heavens, look at how the films we enjoy are made? For them to be truly successful, it's a group effort, using the very best skills of all involved - writer, director, producer, actor, composer, cameraman, effects - for it to succeed. How many times have we said to ourselves, "It wasn't a bad movie, but X gave a weak performance," or "It was pretty good overall, but the music was terrible !" As William Goldman points out, the reason JAWS is still considered a classic is because Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb and David brown and Richard D. Zanuck and Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss and Bill Butler and Robert Mattey and John Williams were all at the top of their game, under the leadership of young Steven Spielberg at the top of his game.)

Imagine if the Apollo Project worked the way our Congress does today...we would never have left Earth's orbit, let along left footprints on the moon! Voyager would never have been launched to the ends of our solar system. Hubble would never have left the ground.

Ask Galileo what it's like working under a system diametrically opposed to your work.

If science worked the way many in our government do today, we would never be transplanting hands.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

There was a time when common ground was sought on even the most polarizing of social issues: war, freedom of choice, equality. And it seemed that at those times, humanity made its most strident steps forward.

Common ground is not sought much today, and I mourn at the lost opportunities, because in the very long run, some of the political arguments are sound and fury signifying nothing, and will mean nothing to the long term advancement of the human race. This species is capable of so much!

Spacecraft can be sent to the stars! Enough food can be grown to feed the world many times over! Energy can be clean and plentiful! Limbs can be transplanted, nerves can be grown, and some day perhaps the lame can walk again! (Remember Christopher Reeves' Oscar commercial; how close are we to the reality today?)

We are capable of things even the brightest and best visionaries and prophets cannot believe will be possible in the lifetimes. They're wrong, of course.

All it takes is the desire - the genuine desire - to put differences aside and do it.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

APRIL
2011

 

It never fails.

Someone makes pronouncements on the state of HOW THINGS ARE - and not long afterwards, circumstances reveal that those pronouncements are premature at best. File this under "If man was meant to fly, he'd have wings", "That H-Bomb will never work, and I speak as an expert in demolitions", and "Don't worry, General Custer, those Indians won't cause us any problems"...

Two months ago, I spent two essays bemoaning the state of current films of Horror and Dark Fantasy. While I still stand behind what I wrote at that time, recent viewings and their critical and commercial success at have convinced me that perhaps the situation isn't as dire as I feared. So...some ruminations on two recent extraordinary viewings...

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Last year, the National Theater of London tried an impressive experiment. In an attempt to bring their performances to the widest possible audiences, the theater refitted their auditorium with state-of-the-art motion-control digital cameras and sound equipment, and offered productions broadcast into participating movie theaters around the world as "real time" live broadcasts (or "real time-delayed", depending on your time zone; in other words, the broadcast is still a live performance from that evening, but filmed and rebroadcast for a more reasonable viewing engagement, much as NBC does with SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE ) under the auspice of "National Theater Live" . Several productions have taken place, including Derek Jackobi's KING LEAR and the upcoming THE CHERRY ORCHARD .

Two months ago I saw a notice that Danny Boyle, Academy award-winning director ( SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE , TRAINSPOTTING , 28 DAYS LATER , and SHALLOW GRAVE , among others) would be helming a new adaptation of Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" , featuring actors Benedict Cumberbatch (recently of PBS's modern adaptation of SHERLOCK Holmes) and Jonny Lee Miller (of TRAINSPOTTING , ELI STONE and the recent season of DEXTER ). the play was adapted by Nick Dear, and the interesting conceit in Mr. Doyle's staging is the bond and interlocking lives between Victor Frankenstein and his Creation. To emphasize this, Misters Cumberbatch and Miller would be playing both roles of Frankenstein and Monster, alternating their performances night after night!

The word of mouth from the beginning was phenomenal. Although known primarily now as a film director, Mr. Boyle got his start in live theater, and had been planning this project for over a decade. Performances were sold out almost as soon as the tickets were available, and the run was completely filled before opening. Critics had nothing but praise for it in previews, and the opportunity to experience a live London production in local theaters around the United States and the rest of the world promised a unique experience that I was eager to partake in. I did my part to let everyone know about this rare chance, and hoped everyone would leap at this.

Frustratingly, as much as I enjoy haunting the Lost Coast , the theaters in this area did not carry the production. I made arrangements to wander to the closest location, Santa Rosa , four hours south of me, and on March 22 sat in the glorious 6th Street Playhouse with a full and excited audience. (Just a brief aside: what little I saw of Santa Rosa , the Railroad District, seemed charming and inviting, and I hope to explore it further in the future. The same can be said for the 6th Street Playhouse; the main building is a huge modern facility that produced musicals, drama and comedy throughout the year, as well as hosting National Theater Live. In addition, the theater has a smaller theater known as The Studio for more intimate shows. You can learn more about it by logging onto HERE.)

First, a technical review: the production was filmed multi-camera, with many on tracks and floating cranes to follow the action, much as you see in NFL football. Obviously the technical director was in charge of the in-camera edits, going from angle to angle to best follow the action. (I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Boyle had a great deal of say in this matter as well.) In this instance, it was more of a filmed play than a theatrical experience; you looked at what the director wanted to show you rather than anyplace that caught your attention. Still given that, the production went smoothly, and the filming seemed to capture the experience as spontaneously as possible with these built-in limitations. the sound quality, music, vocals and sound effects, were mixed perfectly and could be heard as clearly as any live event.

So how was the actual play?

Astonishing.

Realizing that the story of Frankenstein is universally known, Mr. Dear chose to focus on the point-of-view of the Creature. Indeed, we don't really meet Frankenstein himself until the halfway point of the production. Without any expository dialogue to set up the situation and world, the play actually begins with the birth of the Monster, and we watch for breathless minutes as this lump of sew-together flesh begins to breath, crawl, cry out, and finally to stand and walk as a child would. It is a hypnotic opening, catching the breath in the lungs and providing a tour-de-force of physical improvisation for the performer. From there we follow the Creature as he goes into the world, lost first amidst the steam-punk technological city, out into the country, and finally to the home of the blind teacher who will befriend him. The staging was imaginative and at times heartbreaking, and Mr. Cumberbatch (who I saw performing the Creature) carried the production effortlessly, engaging us into the Monster's thoughts and psyche in ways never before examined.

Mr. Dear's play, despite beginning already into the narrative of the book, was extremely faithful to it, in both the philosophies and themes that Mary Shelly found so intriguing. The dialogue was poetic and dark, filled with imagery that touched upon man's place in Creation, and the responsibility of the Creator. Here is a brief excerpt from when Frankenstein meets his Creature on the ice-covered mountain:

VICTOR: That's Paradise Lost! You've read Paradise Lost?

CREATURE: I liked it.

VICTOR: Why? You saw yourself as Adam?

CREATURE: I should be Adam. God was proud of Adam. But Satan's the one I sympathize with. For I was cast out, like Satan, though I did no wrong. And when I see others content, I feel the bile rise in my throat, and it tastes like Satan's bile..."

Wonderful...

Both Mr. Cumberbatch and Mr. Miller were fantastic. I initially wanted to see Cumberbatch as Frankenstein and Miller as the Creature, simply because I thought they matched those roles physically. But Mr. Cumberbatch brought the intellectual side of the Creature to the forefront along with his horror, and Mr. Miller gave Frankenstein a rough, physical presence that echoed his egomaniacal need to control everything in the world around him. Both actors deserved every kudo they've earned. (I understand from others who've seen the alternate performance that both do a fine job in their other roles as well.)

Were there any flaws? Some, of course. Most critics have noted that the play tends to drag a bit in the second part; this is where Mr. Dear hews closer to the narrative structure of the novel, and we interact with Elizabeth, Frankenstein's fiancé, and the other members of Frankenstein's household, including his father .As good as these performances were, and as literate as the scenes were presented, our sympathies are with the Doctor and the Creature, and any time spent away from them found our interest diminishing. (Still, I could offer that same criticism of the novel itself.) And I missed the most famous lines from the novel that for some reason weren't included; the Creature's boast to Frankenstein, "You are my Creator, but I am your Master!" , and his terrible threat, "I'll be with you on your wedding night!"

But these are very minor carps. Mr. Boyle's direction is hard and furious, the production design (which incorporates electric light as a physical representation of the science of the age) was imaginative and beautiful, especially the dark cabin in the Orkney's where Frankenstein creates the female creature. Mr. Dear's script is powerful and offers no false truce between two strong willed protagonists, and goes deeper into the emotional intensity of the story than any other adaptation. There is no subtlety in the Creature's threat; in this production we know exactly what he does to Frankenstein's bride in his horrific revenge. The play ends starkly, as does the novel: two individuals standing on the frozen wastelands of the North pole, their mutual dance of death unresolved, and their thirst for revenge unquenched. It's a strong finale, and fitting for the classic.

How did my fellow audience members react? When the actors on screen came out for their curtain calls, the applause in the theater was long and loud, with huge cheers for the two leads. You couldn't help yourself; you knew they couldn't hear you, but the cheers came just the same. It was a glorious production, everything I hoped and expected it to be, and it has remained with me all these days later.

I urge everyone to try and catch this very special production if they can; go HERE and find a theater near you that is showing this. The ticket cost is more than your average film; $22.00, but that is certainly equitable to any live theater performance. The production is continuing through the beginning of April; I'm certain that a DVD of the show will be made, but please, try and see it now as live as possible, if you can.

Why am I so excited about the prospects this production promises?

Being a live performer, I am greatly aware of the immediacy of a live performance versus film. Unfortunately, for those who do not live near any major metropolitan area, your chances of seeing such a production are limited to special vacation trips. National Theater Live bypasses that, and brings the experience to you, in your neighborhood! for a slightly higher (but still reasonable) ticket price you can share a genuinely theatrical experience in the comfortable and cost-effective way possible. because of the success of the London National Theater Live, it was announced at the performance that some New York theaters are retrofitting their buildings and will soon be presenting their shows to the public ar4ound the world in this same manner.

Think of what this can mean, not just for the average filmgoer, but for those of us whose interest in Horror and the Dark Fantastic are paramount. We are no longer at the mercy of the studios with their needless remakes, teenage slasher snuff atrocities, or CGI extravaganzas! Some possibilities to consider...

I was not terribly impressed with Tim Burtons screen adaptation of SWEENEY TODD ; I thought Johnny Depp was wonderful, but Helena Bonham Carter weak and the production on whole lacking the verve and ghastliness of the stage show. (Some of my disappointment is attributed to the fact that Mr. Burton cut the Greek Chorus from the film, even though he assembled and filmed their segments. Not only do these singers have some wonderful musical moments, but Mr. Burton had employed excellent casting by including, among others, Christopher Lee and Anthony Head - although Mr. Head survives barely with a almost unseen cameo in one section.) BUT - what if one of the New York houses chose to revive the stage production? Wouldn't that be a grand event?

There have been staged versions across the country of a ballet version of "Dracula" that includes flying vampires in its production. Of course unless it comes to your town, you've missed the chance to see this - but come down to your local movie theatre and enjoy it on the large screen!

May years ago, some of my fellow Patient Creatures and I enjoyed a special production of "Lord Of The Rings" that came through the Philadelphia area. It put the entire trilogy on stage through the use of life-sized puppets, special costumes and masks and mime performers. It was incredible. (I alluded to this play a few months ago in my movie critique essay.) What an experience it would be to see that with your family - especially if the theaters took the initiative and had creatures walking in the aisles as in the original production!

National Theater Live holds the possibility of experiencing the very best that movie audiences can partake in; if nothing else, it offers an alternative to the adults among us who are tired of what is being thrown on the screen by Hollywood. I urge you to seek it our and support it as much as you can!

(This review of the play goes into much more detail than my synopsis above; if you are planning to try and catch it you should know there are many spoilers contained within it. However, it does a fine job of relating the entire story, and has some wonderful photographs of the production. You can see it by logging onto the artwork below.)


* * * * * * * * * * * * *

In 1972, Ira Levin wrote what became a classic of the Satirical Horror Tale, a view of the Woman's Liberation Movement skewed through the eyes and thoughts of the panicked male of the species. It was called "The Stepford Wives" , and was later made into a classic film (not the recent debacle that watered down and homogenized the concept, but the original adapted for the screen b y William Goldman and directed by Brian Forbes, and masterpiece of macabre darkness).

Despite what many critics perceived at the time, that Mr. Levin was targeting NOW and Women's Rights, Stephen King points out that the genuine targets were men suddenly confronted with wives and lovers and family members acting in ways that baffled and troubled them. THE STEPFORD WIVES took Freud's question "Women; what do they want?", turned it on its head, and gave back a terribly disturbing reflection of society: men want sexual partners who agree with everything they say and know their place - and they're willing to murder and spend their lives with artificial automatons to ensure that reality holds true.

Mr. King knows more than a little about the Sociological Horror Tale. His first major success was his novel "Carrie" , also made into a classic film, that detailed the terrible class system that passed for normal high school existence. Carrie White was locked into a caste system as rigid and unforgiving as any Third World nation, and her attempts to rise above what is perceived as her station results in an apocalyptic cataclysm the night of the senior prom. It was another story that bit deeply into society's psyche.

I recently seen another film that I believe can stand easily beside both THE STEPFORD WIVES and CARRIE . It is dark, sardonic, outrageous, probably offensive, and alternately fascinating, and the filmmakers have worked their skills to create a powerful, demanding work of art that wouldn't be out of place among the tale in Harlan Ellison's groundbreaking anthology "Dangerous Visions" . The movie is called DEADGIRL , and asks a similar question to that posed by THE STEPFORD WIVES : what do teenage boys want, particularly teenage boys who are considered outsiders? The answer is extremely unsettling.

One way to view DEADGIRL is as a twist on the tried and true zombie formula; I wrote about that two months ago. But the zombie plotline is just a surface detail to examine the heart of the movie. It's a coming-of-age story, an ethical dilemma, a sex comedy, and an examination of the depth of friendship and other relationships. It is strictly for adults, and many adults may find it rough-going as well. It has been somewhat controversial since its release, being equally praised and condemned by genre and mainstream critics. Many reviewers are able to look beyond the surface trappings to the allegory beneath, as I do. Others find it shocking for shock's sake, and unbelievable. No doubt whatever your reaction will be will depend on what you bring to the experience yourself.

The reviews range from "The best Horror Film of the year" from the Seattle Post Globe, " DEADGIRL will remind you of the best of Cronenberg. Cleverly written, stylishly directed and morbidly fascinating" from Film Threat, " DEADGIRL intends to crawl deep under your skin and stay there awhile" from Fangoria Magazine to " It's a well crafted but hollow repulsion, the film equivalent of chugging ipecac on an empty stomach" from Horror's Not Dead and "When a monstrous piece of exploitative junk called DEADGIRL was unveiled to aghast audiences almost a year ago in the “midnight madness” program at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was labeled “too shocking to produce.” But here it is. Vile and disgusting, it is being shown at special midnight shows next week, before opening wider in August. Don't say you haven't been warned" from Rex Reed. (Although the filmmakers are exploiting Mr. Reed's "Don't Say You Haven't Been Warned" tagline in their publicity implying a good review, which may be a shade unfair, but not untruthful.)

The plot is simple. Two young men, Ricky and JT, best friends since childhood and considered 'losers' at their high school, skip class and spend the day exploring an abandoned mental hospital. Behind a rusted iron door in the basement they find the body of a beautiful naked girl, cold and dead but still moving and alert. After a brief discussion, the boys decide to keep her existence a secret...and use her for their own purposes. And a trip down to a very special Hell begins...

The direction, by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, is low-key and lean, the script by Trent Haaga is (to my ears) authentic and honest; the performances by Shiloh Fernandez, Noah Segan, Eric Podner, Candice Accola and particularly Jenny Spain as the title character are uniformly excellent. The tone of the film is not fright or aggressive cruelty by utter sadness, despair, and the use of the somber soundtracks songs helps to heighten the felling. It reminds me in many ways of RIVER'S EDGE , another film about teenagers doing horrible and secret things (which gave Keanu Reeves probably his finest role and his very best performance). There is a bleakness in the lives of the youth in this out-of -the-way small town, a helpless .miasma of people with no future to look forward to. I felt the actions of all involved quite believable and heartbreaking, and the conclusion is as troubling as anything that had come before, reflecting on paths and actions taken in the name of love and loneliness.

I think long after you've seen DEADGIRL it will stay with you, and you'll have questions about what actually happened. I believe it will easily offend many, and I warn you ahead of time that this may not be for all my human friends.

But if you are a courageous filmgoer; if you are not afraid of allegory and a degree of tastelessness in the pursuit of Art; if you wish to look deeply into the underside of small-town existence in the manner of BLUE VELVET ; if you can stare into the face of sexual perversion and recognize the tortured humanity beneath, then DEADGIRL should prove as thought-provoking to you as it did to me. If nothing else, it shows that the adult, thinking Horror Film is not a thing of the past; it's alive and well in the hands of independent filmmakers with the nerve to fully explore their taboo subjects. I applaud and salute them, and recommend this fine effort without hesitation.

You have been encouraged, and warned.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

MARCH
2011

 

There has been a great deal of discussion and controversy about the current explosion of 3D films. Many films have been planned with this new state-of-the-art process, and several that were originally filmed "flat" are being reshaped into a 3D experience. Many critics far more knowledgeable than I have weighed in on the subject. Pulitzer Prize-winning Roger Ebert is definitely in the "does not like 3D" camp, while my friend and “Video Watchdog” reviewer Shane Dallman seems to find it acceptable if used well. I think I can place myself firmly on the latter list; I don't find 3D objectionable per se, but believe if you're going to use it, it must be used well and essential to the filmic experience.

Let me regal with a few personal anecdotes, and I'll try and sum up my reaction to and consideration of the arguments on both sides.

First, I've seen several 3D films planned and designed to be released in this format. They include CORALINE, BOLT and AVATAR. I've also seen some films that have been converted to 3D, most notably THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. And I've seen some 3D films in a regular theater without the 3D effects. These include the original HOUSE OF WAX, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, and most recently, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. I have also for the most part avoided CLASH OF THE TITANS, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, PIRANHA 3D, and the new FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH.

Of the repeated criticism that the 3D process makes  the images and screen darker...I haven't noticed this, either in films designed for 3D (such as AVATAR and CORALINE) or converted (NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS). To my eyes the images in all these films look crisp, sharp and bright. It's possible that other films, notably CLASH OF THE TITANS and THE GREEN HORNET (which have been mentioned in this regard) have these problems; since I don't intend to see them, I can't comment.

When I saw AVATAR in 3D, I thought the 3D element of the movie was distracting, and didn't care for it. I wish I'd seen that movie "flat". Conversely, as much as I enjoyed HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, I believe I would have loved it even more (especially the flight sequences) if I'd experienced them in 3D. That movie, after all, was about the relationship between the hero and his dragon companion. Much of their rapport solidified in their mutual experiments in flight, and I think the additional 3D element may have strengthened the emotional reactions to their growing bond.

I concede completely that a good visual image can appear to be 3D simply through the use of superb cinematography, using the depth of field of film stock. And I would agree that the converse is also true; despite the highest level of 3D technology, if the shots and images aren't planned carefully, you will have a no more affecting image than if it was shot flat - probably worse, in fact.

Let's also try to agree with this argument of 3D I hereby put forth: that there is a vast qualitative difference between BWANA DEVIL, THE BUBBLE and METALSTORM and AVATAR, whether you cared for Mr. Cameron's movie or not.

As much as I respect Mr. Ebert's position, and the position of those in Hollywood (cinematographers, directors, and other esteemed critics) who have more experience than I, I am not quite ready to write off the 3D experience as a failure yet. I am concerned, naturally enough, but I'm not quite ready to dismiss it. Not yet. Part of my arguments is admittedly emotional; I'll get to those in a moment.

It may be that my background in live theatrical presentations, rather than film, is what causes me to access the 3D experiment more gently than those who work primarily in cinema. After all, a live performance is definitely 3D, and the best directors try very hard to immerse the audience in the action as much as possible. It's quite common now in theater (whereas years ago it was considered unconventional and avant-garde) to use the aisles themselves and platforms built around the audience as much as the stage and proscenium. I recall a production of THE LORD OF THE RINGS many years ago in Philadelphia, a combination of human actors, elaborate costumes and puppetry, which featured huge Orcs striding down the long aisles and a great dragon flying over the audience's heads, to the obvious delight of the many children present (and myself as well!)

Two other personal anecdotes to illustrate the point:

For several years at Netherworld Haunted Attraction in Atlanta GA , my companions Ben Armstrong and Billy Messina included a section that featured 3D effects. This was achieved by a special florescent paint and lighting, along with glasses worn by the customers. The 3D experience created a fine, disorienting feeling of spectral creatures floating just our of reach, things popping out of dark places to menace and threaten, and greatly contributed to the fear-filled atmosphere. One of my favorite rooms had a river scene painted on the floor, with disturbing sea creatures floating in it. When viewed in 3D, the customers appeared to be up to their knees in water teaming with malevolent lifeforms. Quite eerie!

When my human companion Bob staged a production of "A Christmas Carol" some years ago, he took advantage of a kitchen in the church where the show was produced to cook some food for the Cratchit Family Christmas Dinner scene. The first night he had stuffing and bread cooking on the stove top and in the oven because the microwave wasn't working properly. Because of the proximity of the kitchen to the stage, the smells of the cooking dinner wafted out over the audience, making them actually feel hungry and greatly adding to the enjoyment of that scene. Even though the microwave was available and working subsequent nights, it was decided to continue with the slow-cooking of the dinner to perpetrate that same effect for the remainder of the run.

So you see, being a live performer, often telling my tales scant feet away from my listeners, I am fully aware of the desire to bring the artistic experience ever closer to the audience, and I welcome the cinematic attempts to break down the wall between screen and viewers.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Let's backtrack for just a moment; I promise I'll return to the discussion forthwith, but first, a small digression...

Any new technology brought to an art form is automatically greeted with equal parts enthusiasm and suspicion. And the early attempts to use this technology can be crude and disappointing.

When sound was introduced to the movies, many silent film professionals lost work because they couldn't match their images with their newly recorded voices; this is an established historical fact. But among the other trials was the fact that the previously freed camerawork of silent movies now had to take a backseat to sound recording techniques. Locations were used sparingly; cameras were bolted down and soundstages were constructed to eliminate outside noises. Many of these early efforts look particularly stagy; there is not as much camera movement as had been previously experimented with when sound was not a consideration. (Look at the early expressionistic films and see the swooping, moving photography that so influenced many modern directors.) The sound in many of the early movies was disappointing as well, sounding tinny and crackling with ambient interference.

Obviously this was a technology that had to be refined, and directors had to retrain themselves to accommodate the new techniques. Some were unable to do this successfully; other reveled in it. It has often been pointed out the disparity between the direction of the two classic films FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA. Tod Browning, used to making silent films, was apparently uncomfortable with the new technology; his DRACULA is very stagebound and static, saved mostly by the art direction of Charles D. Hall, the cinematography of Karl Freund, and the performance of Bela Lugosi. James Whales FRANKENSTEIN uses the camera brilliantly, never subjugating the visual for the aural considerations. His film is filled with stark imagery, forced perspective, and the delirious use of tilted frames and close-ups to suggest Victor Frankenstein's madness.

There were some directors that went even beyond this. Look at the wonderfully fluid camerawork in Carl Dreyer's VAMPYR, particularly the sequence in the ice house, and listed to the layered muted voices on the soundtrack. Watch CITIZEN KANE and see how Orson Welles' camera movements required the soundman to rethink how he recorded the dialogue. There is also a wonderful scene where the family takes an automobile through a snowy hillside, and Welles demanded that the audience hear the ride as well as see it. The soundman invented techniques that soon became common, but at the time were truly innovative.

When Cinemascope and Cinerama made their debuts, they were also dismissed as gimmicks - but some notable films were made with both techniques, including Kubrick's use of Cinerama to capture the black, limitless depths of space in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Sensurround was designed to rattle the theater seats so that audiences could feel the title disaster in 1974's EARTHQUAKE. It didn't make much of an impression in the movies - but it was extremely effective when used at DisneyWorld to suggest the launching of the moon rockets in their Tomorrowland rides.

One of the most innovative technical achievements in movie history has been the development and use of sound in the past 40 years, beginning back with George Lucas's AMERCIAN GRAFFITTI . Mr. Lucas wanted the sound to be as layered and full of depth as the visual frame. He achieved his goal, and the work evolved from there into the THX Theater Sound that we have today, with sound as important to the movie-going experience as the visual reference.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Let's look at how the technique was handled in two films from the original 3D era: HOUSE OF WAX and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

HOUSE OF WAX is definitely in the "throw-things-at-the-audience-and-watch-them-jump" school of 3D filmmaking. The most famous and outrageous moment concerns a sideshow barker playing with children's paddleball toys, batting them towards the audience while he makes his pitch to bring customers into the wax museum. Interesting and entertaining, but not really germane to the plot; the use of the 3D gimmick is simply that - a gimmick. We are treated to other scenes, such as molten wax being poured down a trough towards the camera, and a final moment of a wax head of actor Charles Bronson thrust towards the audience. In the final analysis, the use of 3D in HOUSE OF WAX is incidental, and the film suffers not at all for being shown without it. Indeed, at has survived on television as a classic without anyone seeing it in its 3D state except for the occasional film festival.

THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON has very few of these moments. Director Jack Arnold instead uses the 3D effect subtly to open up the underwater world of the Creature. The camera prowls across the bottom of the lagoon, the freshwater life floating past the lens and the audience. (one viewer, seeing the movie in 3D lamented at that time that Jacques Cousteau didn't film his television specials in 3D.) The illusion is marvelous, and truly "immerses" the viewer in the story. The movies plays perfectly well without the effect, but its use brings (pardon the obvious pun) a new dimension to the endeavor.

(As a side note, I've since seen undersea footage in 3D; the effect of being in that submerged world is astonishing and wonderful.)

It seems to me then, that 3D used to enhance the cinematic experience is obviously the best use of the new technology. Of course, the definition of “enhance” is where the arguments begin. Does having object thrown from the screen “enhance the experience? Would PIRANHA 3D have been as embraced if it didn't have gore and body parts explode into the audience? Will the film play equally well without those effects? Better?

This is obviously where the filmmaker's intuition comes into play. I believe the best writers, the best directors, the best artists, adapt their techniques to best fit the projects at hand. This is what separates the skilled craftsman from the truly innovative artist. Harlan Ellison once pointed out that Norman Rockwell was simply an exceptional painter, while Pablo Picasso was an artistic genius, because Mr. Picasso could do what Mr. Rockwell did, but Mr. Rockwell could not do what Mr. Picasso did. (Although it's since been discovered in perusing Mr. Rockwell's less commercial, more experimental work, that this might not be true.)

It's a point taken. Obviously MY DINNER WITH ANDRE will never require the 3D treatment; watching the food leave the screen will add nothing to the cinematic conversation. Stephen Spielberg has stated in more than one interview that the wide, sweeping camerawork employed in JAWS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND would have been out of place in SCHINDLER'S LIST, overpowering the subject matter, so he had to adjust his style to make it more appropriate for that film. I feel the best directors will do that instinctively, to serve their various projects.

Alfred Hitchcock decided to use the 3D techniques for his film DIAL M FOR MURDER. Was it successful? It's difficult to say; I consider that movie one of his lesser efforts. The film was eventually released “flat”, like THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and HOUSE OF WAX, and that has how it's been seen for the most part. It didn't seem to harm its impact.

I don't think 3D would have made the terrors of PSYCHO more frightening; the death of Arborgast on the stairs was a strange, dizzying effect in itself, created for that film. But…would 3D have made VERTIGO more effective, taking us deeper inside James Stewart's madness, capturing his terror more powerfully? After all, Mr. Hitchcock created the filmic technique of the “zoom in/dolly out” for this movie, to better visualize his hero's fear. (The technique has now become standard, and is used extremely well in the beach attack scene in JAWS.) Would 3D have made the flocks of winged horror more overwhelming, the battle inside the farmhouse more claustrophobic in THE BIRDS?

Obviously we can't know; Mr. Hitchcock has sadly departed from this mortal coil. But directors of his caliber have expressed a interest in the current 3D process. Werner Herzog has already filmed a new movie using 3D; Martin Scorsese has one in the planning stages. And even Mr. Ebert, opposed as he is to the process, stated that James Cameron designed AVATAR for 3D, and did so brilliantly.

3D would probably not have added much to either A CLOCKWORK ORANGE or EYES WIDE SHUT. But could Mr. Kubrick have used the technology to further create a sense of our place in the vastness of the universe in 2001? Would 3D have immersed us further in the documentary feeling of spaceflight? Would the trip through the Star Gate have been even more unsettling and mind-expanding? How about the vastness of the Overlook Hotel in THE SHINING? Would 3D have made its terrors even more insidious?

3D would have found a natural home in the derring-do of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. But would the terror of the Great White have been even more pronounced in JAWS? Would the sea battle between Brody, Quint and Hooper been even more visceral, particularly the final encounter in the shark cage? Would 3D have made the cyclopean Mother Ship of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS even more staggering, and the final dance of the UFOs more magical and enthralling?

What of the breathtaking battle sequences in Kurosawa's RAN? Or the martial arts ballet of Ang Lee's CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and Yimou Zhang's HERO?

Until a few more A-list directors have tried their hands at the technology and experimented with it thoroughly, I'm not yet prepared to dismiss 3D. Not entirely, and not yet.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Now, the promised personal reaction…

When examining the effect of 3D on movies, and the audience reaction, too often those commenting do so from their own perspective as experienced film-goers, with (in many cases, such as Mr. Ebert's) a vast and even scholarly approach to cinema. Which is well and good; scholarship is not to be taken lightly when critiquing any art form.

But what of those who come to film tabula rosa , with no preconceptions or knowledge of film's technological and artistic history? To them, the advent of 3D is simply another form of filmmaking, to stand or fall simply on how much they enjoyed the experience. True, if the technology is used poorly or the film itself immemorial, it could have a lasting impact on their concept of film as art. The loudest voices of outrage against the unnecessary remakes of PSYCHO, THE HAUNTING and CAT PEOPLE were that young moviegoers wouldn't be able to appreciate the true classics, and would only equate the movies with these pale imitations.

All right; no argument there. But as an optimist, I have to at least attempt to believe that true quality will rise to the surface, and the classic versions of those films will be discovered and loved by even the most unsophisticated viewer.

And in the case of 3D, there is always that chance, that possibility, that the experience can be so amazing that it will draw the viewer into a lifelong love affair with film; that the suspension of disbelief will be a thing with wings to carry the audience into area of imagination that hasn't been explored before.

At least that's the hope. And it seemed to be a true and honest hope in the experience of one of my human friends. I'll let him tell the tale in his own words:

“I had seen THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS many times before in its "natural" state. However, when the 3D version was re-released in theaters, I couldn't resist seeing it again. I was curious to how the experience would compare. I took along my little girl, who had never seen it on the big screen, and never seen a 3D movie. I myself hadn't seen one in years; previously it had been with the old cardboard red and green glasses.

I
have to say I was terribly impressed with how the new technology looked. Not so much for the characters and props popping off the screen into my lap, but by the depth of field that the process brought to the story. I remember clearly when Jack went walking through the cemetery, walking behind a tombstone that loomed large in my face, while the other stones and hills scattered to the rear of the graveyard. It seems as though I was looking at a live model come to life, as if I was actually there as the figures walked through actual landscapes.

(Me again: Which may be why the animated film like CORALINE and NIGHTMARE seem to use the process best; they actually are three-dimensional objects in a fantastic landscape.)

But as much as I was charmed and delighted by this version of the movie, my daughter was openmouthed with wonder and excitement, giggling at the antics of Jack and Sally, and literally jumping in her seat as the missiles and bombs exploded around Jack in his sleigh, raining debris all around us. In the most excited voice possible, she squealed, "This is the best movie EVER!!"

It was exactly the reaction every filmmaker prays will come from their audience; giving themselves totally over to the story and characters, having them genuinely come to life. I confess to being caught up in those feelings myself, and I was so happy to share that with her. I'll carry this memory for the rest of my life. If this ignited her love of movies, if it opened her eyes to the wonders of the cinema in a way never before experienced, how can I possible begrudge 3D?”

So true. And if that is the effect that 3D can accomplished when used to its greatest ability, then I would not deprive any filmgoer of such riches.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

FEBRUARY
2011

 

Last time we were talking about why there were so many bad Horror films, and why many of you play a part in that. (I apologize for being so blunt right off the bat, but the truth is the truth – let's be honest.)

Of course anyone can complain about the state of affairs in the world at large, be your subject political, artistic, spiritual, and the like. When criticism, however merited, stings the artist, the creator usually responds with something like, “Yeah? Well, what's your idea?”

Funny you should ask…

But before we get into that, let's choose a specific film and take it apart, piece by piece, and discover just what made it such a failure. And I promise I'll try and be firm, yet kind…

The recent remake of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET should suffice. Almost universally panned by critics and fans alike, as much as I bemoan the lack of imagination and courage in the concept of remakes, this film actually had a rather strong pedigree to recommend it.

The original, while a superb film, was definitely a low-budget affair, and a bit more money to polish the concepts couldn't hurt. Replacing Robert Englund's iconic performance would be Jackie Earl Haley, an extraordinary actor who has matured from a thoughtful, natural adolescent of THE BAD NEWS BEARS and BREAKING AWAY to become an intense, Oscar nominated adult performer, whose most recent film role, Rorschach in the magnificent WATCHMEN , was breathtaking. Less inspiring was the choice of Samuel Bayer as director; this would be his first full-length film, and his background was extensively in music videos. (And why do most producers of today's Horror feel that music videos are a good training ground for our genre?) Even less promising was Producer Michael Bay, known for big, empty-headed summer blockbusters such as PEARL HARBOR , ARMAGEDON , and the TRANSFORMERS films. There was a sense of optimism about the screenwriters; Wesley Strick was responsible for the CAPE FEAR remake, ARACHNOPHOBIA and the criminally-underrated TRUE BELIEVER , before fumbling with THE SAINT and DOOM . Still, the project had the blessings of original writer/director Wes Craven; we were content to wait and see what would happen.

So…what went so wrong? Why was the film roundly condemned by those who were looking forward to it the most? Let's look at the original to determine what it did right , and then we'll compare…

To begin with, the concept – that your dreams can become real and affect you physically on the temporal plain – was sufficiently fresh in the age of the so-called “slasher” films when the original premiered. Yes, it had a villain as menacing and fierce as Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, along with the second-string-and–rate psychopaths from their copycat films, but as dangerous as Freddie Krueger was, there was more at work than your standard slice-and-dice carnage.

Wes Craven took the central image of Mr. Krueger from a nightmare he'd had when he was younger, and the film as a whole explores the disturbing territory of dreams, slumbering films of the subconscious sometimes more real and intense than waking. Mr. Craven knew the powers that nightmares have over people, and that they contain an interior logic that allows for the most surreal interconnections of memory and phobia. Real dreams do not twist and turn with phony lightning and thunder and scary rubber monsters; what makes them so terrifying is that physical laws can be bent and broken without disturbing the interior narrative. We wander through them thinking, “something is definitely wrong”, but we often can't quite put our fingers on what.

The original film plays on many well-researched and classic dream scenarios, even within the confines of its budget; you are running from danger, and the ground beneath you becomes marshy quicksand, slowing your progress; the hallway you are running down seems to elongate and become endless; your bathtub suddenly becomes as deep and wide as a swimming pool, and you tread water, afraid of something floating beneath you.

My personal favorite moment; the crowning touch of disturbing surrealism, occurs shortly after the death of Nancy's friend Tina. Unable to sleep at night, Nancy nods off in her school classroom, then seems to start herself awake. The room is soft-focused and misty, and everything seems slowed down appreciably, time drawing down. Nancy turns to her right, and there sits Tina at her desk; ravaged by the razored fingers of Freddie Krueger, sitting inside a clear plastic body bag dripping and blood-splattered. But none in the classroom, not the teacher, not the other students, notices or seems disturbed by this.

After a brief conversation, Tina gets up and walks from the classroom, and again, no one seems to notice. After a moment Nancy rises and follows her. She follows her friend's little bloody footprints down the empty, brightly-lit school hallway, then turns and opens a door that Tina went through moments before. As Nancy steps through it she is instantly in Freddie's furnace room lair.

What impressed me so much about that scene is how much Mr. Craven got right . The scene was not a dark, litter-strewn alleyway but a brightly lit room. There were no shrieks of horror, only the quiet whisper of a dead girl. The mood was light, airy, almost faerie-like, until it suddenly grew dark in the blink of an eye, as dreams do. Mr. Craven, whom I've often found an uneven talent, played his camera and word processor like a virtuoso with that scene, and if the rest of the film didn't quite match the eerie effectiveness of those moments, it came very close. Despite his obvious money constraints, Mr. Craven's original film succeeded by sheer dint of imagination and the firm professional vision of its creator.

(Not to mention the performance of Mr. Englund. At a time that most movie monsters and killers were being played by stuntmen, Mr. Craven hired a classically-trained actor to wear Freddie's horrible visage and, like Misters Karloff, Chaney and Lugosi before him, Mr. Englund added a depth of character to his role that made Mr. Krueger more than simply a nightmarish boogey-man.)

Now, what does the new NIGHTMARE offer? The same stark lighting used in SE7EN , HOSTEL , etc. The same industrial wasteland found in many art designs that harken back to BLADE RUNNER and other Industrial/Goth music videos. The same flash cutting and camera angles found in the aforementioned music video.  There is none of the interior logic of the dream world, none of the even-if-this-is-impossible-it- must-be-real mindset. The situations could be standard supernatural Horror movie (modern Horror movie, not the cleanly-scribed films of yesteryear – my, I sound old, don't I? In short, nothing distinguishes NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET from ONE MISSED CALL or CAPTIVITY or FINAL DESTINATION or any other teen terror film of the past several years.

(You want to see what nightmares really look like? Rent David Lynch's groundbreaking ERASERHEAD , which still holds up as one of the most unsettling films ever made. Mr. Lynch is a master at dream-speak, with credits such as the animal nightmares of THE ELEPHANT MAN , the water visions of DUNE and the clues-within-the-velvet- curtains surrealism of TWIN PEAKS . He knows the most terrifying moments happen in bright sunlight and silence, not dark corners and deafening industrial hammering. And if David Lynch had been tapped as the director of the NIGHTMARE remake, I'd have been standing in line the week before it opened…)

And because there was nothing new, nothing they hadn't seen before, audiences stayed away in droves, and poisonous word-of-mouth spread like brushfire. There was nothing to distinguish this movie; it played it safe and secure, a few jumps, some heavy metal music, blood, carnage, and bad acting. But it had a title of a classic shocker, so that should bring the money into the box office. And praising with faint damns, the best that one critic could say about the dream sequences was that they were…”all right”.

It didn't have to be that way. If the producers and director and scenarists had one-fifth of the imagination and talent of Mr. Craven at his most budget-conscious, they could have perhaps made something worthwhile. But they played it safe, and made a perfectly average movie, and lost whatever credibility they possessed with the genre followers.

And as I stated last month, sometimes this is the best they can do! They simply don't have the talent to construct a genuine film of fear; all they can make are generic “horror movies” (yes, lower case) with all the elements carried over from what has gone before, often for the better. Were this a just world, Mr. Bayer would be sentenced to another 10 years of MTV, Mr. Strick would return to Remedial Screenwriting 101, and Mr. Bay would just…go away somewhere. Retire. To an island. Like Gilligan. The Skipper too… (Sorry, I'm got carried away there.)

* * * * * * *

Okay. Anyone can throw bricks, but do I have any suggestions on how to improve the current lot of films? You need but ask…

First: If you must remake a movie, make certain there's a good reason for it.

We did not need a new NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET ; we didn't need Gus Van Sant's redoing PSYCHO shot-by-shot, what did the new FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH really add to the original? But…not every remake is a disaster or an attempt to make a quick profit. The one continuously held up as the right way to remake a movie is David Cronenberg's THE FLY , and they're right; it's more than a worthy reimagining, perhaps arguably improving on the original.

There must be something that the new creators bring to the table different from the first movie. Rob Zombie certainly attempted this with his HALLOWEEN remake (although I'm not terribly impressed with Mr. Zombie's film skills beyond HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES ), the team behind the new LAST HOUSE ON HE LEFT tried for a more naturalistic and realistic approach, and according to Stephen King, they succeeded admirably.

Looking for a good movie to remake? How about LIFEFORCE , a truly abysmal adaptation of “The Space Vampires” by Colin Wilson? The novel is a fascinating re-examination of the vampire mythology, Gothic Horror mixed with Science Fiction. Certainly it could be done better than the mishmash the original was.

There's been a lot of discussion about remaking Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS , as if a modern filmmaker could do better than the collaboration of acclaimed director Peckinpah and award-winning actor Dustin Hoffman. But the film deviated greatly from the original source novel “The Siege Of Trencher's Farm” . How about remaking the novel more faithfully? Author Jack Ketchum believes the book is even more frightening; perhaps he'd be happy to attempt a screenplay. Which leads me into the next point…

Second: try finding decent source material, or better yet, hire someone with a strong background in the genre.

Look, there's no shame in acknowledging that not everyone is good at everything. The auteur theory aside, there's no reason a director has to write his own screenplays, anymore than a singer has to write his own songs. Stanley Kubrick had a fierce filmatic vision, but truly enjoyed working with the best possible authors to create the best possible movies, and his list of collaborators include Terry Southern, Arthur C. Clarke, Anthony Burgess, Stephen King, Dalton Trumbo, and Gustav Hasford. In fact, I would argue that the one film that he adapted solely himself for the screen, BARRY LYNDON , was his least successful.

When Gene Roddenberry created the original STAR TREK series, he deliberately sought out professional Science Fiction writers to add credibility to the stories told. During the three seasons it was on the air, legitimate names in the field such as Robert Bloch, Norman Spinrad, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, Jerry Sol, Jerome Bixby, and Richard Matheson contributed scripts and storylines. Their contributions made the series the landmark it remains today.

Simply by glancing at my own library, and briefly perusing one of my reference volumes, here is a short list of genre material worthy and waiting to be adapted for the big screen:

THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND
THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON
A WINTER'S TALE
FLOATING DRAGON
KOKO
THE HIGH HOUSE
OUR LADY OF DARKNESS
FROM THE DUST RETURNING
THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS
THE WHIMPER OF WHIPPED DOGS
THE BEAST THAT SHOUTED LOVE AT THE HEART OF THE WORLD
THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH
BAG OF BONES
THE SCARF
THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR
DOCTOR RAT
ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE
THE WASP FACTORY

Don't tell me those titles don't sound more interesting than half the films released last year.

Some of the greatest successes, both financially and artistically, have been from name sources in the field. Ira Levin with ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE STEPFORD WIVES , John W. Campbell with THE THING in Mr. Carpenter's remake, Stephen King with Mr. Kubrick's THE SHINING , Clive Barker with HELLRAISER , Stuart Gordon's version of Lovecraft's  HERBERT WEST - RE-ANIMATOR , Peter Straub with GHOST STORY (although I believe the film pales in comparrison to the brilliant novel, I credit it's attempt at respecting the source material), and, to move more towards the present, Steve Niles with 30 DAYS OF NIGHT , Frank Darabont's THE MIST and Mikael Hafstrom's 1408 (both also from Mr. King), Thomas Harris's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and Robert Kirkman's THE WALKING DEAD (with an assist from Mr. Darabont).

Stephen King, in the past, has made a point of extending a good deal to young, upcoming filmmakers that want to adapt his work. You can purchase the one-time rights to one of his stories for $10.00, on the condition that you don't try to sell the film commercially and you send him a copy. Many have taken him up on this; it certainly wouldn't hurt to try, after all, that's exactly how Frank Darabont got his start, with his short adaptation of THE WOMAN IN THE ROOM . It impressed Mr. King and several others, eventually was released commercially, and led to THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE GREEN MILE , as well as the aforementioned THE MIST . Trying top get someone experience with Horror on your team may not be much of a wasted effort; like you, most of them are fans as well, and really want to see good movies made. They can also keep you away from what's been done before to death (pun not intended but welcomed).

Which leads us to the third point: Putting a new spin on tried and true formulas.

Our field is large enough to contain King and Collier, Rice and Shakespeare, Poe and Serling, Dickens and Ketchum, and whole legions of writers in between; in addition, some creative forces who work primarily or extensively in film, such as Matheson, Barker, Lansdale, King, and McDowell. Having one of these one your team might help those late-night story sessions when the best you can come up with is, "Hey! Let's have the zombies eat lots of people!"

OK, I'm getting sarcastic again. But can we assume, for sake of argument, that the films beloved by some of the up-and-coming auteurs are beloved by many fans in the genre, and that simply retreading and regurgitating what was done before can become boring at some many levels in so short a time? Can we meet middle ground here, at least?

Let's look at zombies. Zombies are inexplicably popular right now. (And I should point out again that in none of Mr. Romero's original films does that name appear until LAND OF THE DEAD .) And we've seen it all before; the shambling, the flesh tearing, the hardy group of survivors locked in combat in an isolated and claustrophobic community of building. SHAUN OF THE DEAD lampooned this brilliantly, even, as I stated last month, wringing genuine dread and terror from the familiar. So why do it all over again?

Some of the most successful zombie films in recent years have tried to stake out their own territory by twisting the narrative, to great or lesser success. PONTYPOOL created an epidemic of violence based on language; 28 DAYS LATER postulated a "rage virus" and left London a desolate, empty city, various films from DIARY OF THE DEAD to [REC] to ZOMBIE DIARIES have tried to use the "documentary/found footage" approach to an Undead Apocalypse.

How about exploring that isolated group even more, like the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD ? How about a genuinely isolated community; say, the Amish? How would a zombie attack look in the hills of Lancaster County, PA? How would they react? How would they fight back, since violence is abhorrent to them?

What about a small farm, with a large family, ala THE WALTONS ? Naturally isolated, and depending on each other and with all the love and tensions of a genuine family? How would they learn about, let alone handle, an uprising of the Living Dead? Or, let's put another twist on this: let's say they've been fighting the zombies for years now, and the attacks are coming fewer and far between...how do they react to the fact that they may be the very last living creatures on earth, even including the zombies? How do they face the fact that even the zombies are almost gone? Remember, drama is simple - man against man, man against nature, man against self. These scenarios touch on all these elements in one film, just as Mr. Romero understood very well.

Do you have a little bit of money to spend? Access to a theater department's wardrobe? How about setting your zombie film on an isolated farm at the time period of THE WALTONS , during the Great Depression? Wouldn't people react to the threat differently than they would today? (Remember, this is pre-World War II.) There were masses of homeless walking the empty roads between cities; men out of work, down on their luck...and perhaps the Undead or two?

I'm sure everyone knows someone who's into historical reenactments. Gather some of those people together and set a zombie story during an obscure Civil War battle. Or even the Revolutionary War, if you feel so inspired. (And during the Civil War, wouldn't the zombies be part of the traditional slave heritage, brought here from the East Indies or African coasts? There's another level for a filmmaker to play with, and some possibly biting social observations to make from the distance of 150 years ago...)

Has anyone ever given a thought to the religious implications in zombies? What happens to the souls? (Other than the eerie line from DAWN OF THE DEAD : "When there's no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the earth.") How about a film grappling with just those issues? You wish an enclosed environment for zombie carnage: how about a monastery? Or a convent?

Or how about the zombies themselves? Are they simple soulless husks; background images for directors to prod and push as they will? What are the feelings about a person infected with the zombie virus, or facing becoming and undead? What visuals could be used to represent his frame of mind? What would he be feeling? What images could become iconic for representing the inner turmoil of the Living Dead? At least one film should explore this, and it should be title I, ZOMBIE .

I don't have much use for the so-called "torture porn" types of films; to me they are a blot on our genre. But I recognize that the use of torture in literature can be artistic (I direct you to “1984” as a prime example; I intend to expound on this in another essay). Surely we can do better than the butcher-shop displays in so much of today's cinema. What if we truly go inside the mind of one of these killers, such as HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER ? What if the person doing the killing had remorse; some kind of tortured reason for the carnage, ala MARTYRS ? What if the victim sought out torture for their own unsettling needs; there's a dangerous idea! We've seen many a story about the corrupt Witchfinders of Old Salem; how they were hypocrites that used their powers to subjugate women. But what about a movie about a Witchfinder who was sincere, genuinely believed in what he was doing, and was compassionately trying to rid the world of evil. Put him against mortal women and you have a true tragedy; put him against a woman who turns out to be a genuine witch and you have a completely different type of story.

It has occasionally been speculated (first, to my knowledge, by Jeff Rice, creator of Carl Kolchack in THE NIGHT STALKER novel) that Jack The Ripper might have been a woman, and was never caught because women weren't under suspicion. What a fine period film that would be! Or simply transport it to modern day for a change of pace (and a bit of payback) and have a young woman serial killer murdering scores of handsome, barely-dressed young men. It couldn't hurt...

Changing gender is a fine way to explore a different take on an old theme. Recently there was a film adaptation of Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST that cast Helen Mirren in the role of Prospero. There is currently a graphic novel adaptation of NOSFERATU where the main male character has been changed to a female; she is the lesbian lover of the damsel in distress. This opens up a whole new way of looking at the vampire's activities. How about a gender reversal on FRANKENSTEIN - a female doctor and monster? Or a werewolf tale with a woman as the protagonist? (Yes, I know of GINGER SNAPS ; that was a marvelous effort, but I'm thinking more along the classic Universal line.) Or an adaptation of Poe's "William Wilson" with female antagonists? Or "The Pit And The Pendulum" ?

Your budget is too low for a period film? Fine. Take a public domain work - "Dracula", "Frankenstein", "Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" - and set it in modern day environment, but keep the language, characters and actions the same as from the novel! Many of Shakespeare's works well in contemporary clothes; witness the Ethan Hawke version of HAMLET .

I offer these suggestions in the spirit of sparking some creativity. If any strike a chord, please, run with them. Use them well and wisely. And if you want to thank me, a small stipend for the original idea will be appreciated; you can also acknowledge me in the credits.

You're welcome.

* * * * * * *

.I wanted to end this on a hopeful note. Certainly there have always been dry times in cinema before, particularly in our genre. All is not completely hopeless.

On a recent facebook posting, my human companion Shane Dallman, a superlative film critic, wrote:

" Wow, world. You made THE ROOMMATE Number One. Why do I even bother?"

Later a friend replied thus:

"You can't really blame the audience... The Roommate was made with "mass market appeal" written all over it, formulaic and tossed out on a weekend when NO ONE goes to the movies anyway for whatever reason. It's number one out of a list of wh at, precisely? Creative, daring, and original films are made for niche market audiences... we get our occasional bones thrown our way..."

This is quite true. As I stated last time, by sheer dint of amount of product out there, the truly exceptional film is a rare commodity, like the gold nugget carefully panned from the stream after hours of backbreaking work. (To use Stephen King's metaphor.) Many movies are good, which is a blessing; many more, probably most, are simply average, something created to kill time. And that would not be a problem if there was even an attempt to create something extraordinary but it simply fell short to average. As the gentleman states above, today's movies are aiming for the lowest common denominator, aiming strictly at the broadside of the barn, and blasting over the apple tree in the yard next door, like a bad Buster Keaton effort. (To use Thomas Disch's metaphor.) In other words, not even coming close to achieving average.

And this, frankly, is where we as the audience come in. There simply has to be more to the Horror genre, the genre that birthed Poe and Lovecraft and Romero and Cronenberg, than SHARKTOPUS . (And I hear someone crying from the back, "Well, what's wrong with that? It's fun!" Yes it is. And there is nothing wrong with occasional junk food, but if you try to subsist on a diet of just potato chips you will become surly, sickly, malnourished and eventually want to simply throw up. And that's my metaphor, and an apt one. I'll restrain myself from here on out...)

There are instances of brilliance and excitement in the field of Horror and Dark Fantasy, moments that restore your faith in film and make all the hours wading through the dreck worthwhile. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, GRACE, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, MONSTERS, PAN'S LABRYNTH, THE DESCENT, BLACK SWAN, THE MIST, 1408, MARTYRS, RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE and  THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE . I may not agree with the success of all of these, but each one approached the genre with respect, imagination, inspiration, and the same level of seriousness that is granted to mainstream fare, with nothing to apologize for. And in many cases, each movie terrified, enlightened and caught critics and audiences off guard who were prepared to dismiss them as simply "horror movies". I've seen independent work at film festivals that are astonishing assured and pull no punches; THE WOODEN GATE and THE MANSON FAMILY and SILVER SCREAM and CHAINSAW SALLY and DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE were created by individuals that I respect, and I lament that these artists are still denied the spotlight afforded MY SOUL TO TAKE, SAW 3D, HATCHET II, THE COLLECTOR and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE .

In the end, we have the power. And every time we surrender our hard-earned money to reward makers of terrible, ordinary films, we hand that power to those who do not respect us, or Horror. Not really. And we allow them to justify what is thrown on the screen with the adage, "The box office doesn't lie! We're giving people what they want!"

It's simple. When in doubt, save your money. Rent an older movie. Read a book. Starve those who would treat us as simple consumers instead of an audience to be seduced and catered to.

Let's start owning our own souls again.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JANUARY
2011

 

Let's begin quite honestly, shall we, and we'll work our way back.

Point Number One: there are a lot of very bad Horror movies being made every day.

Do you really want to argue that point? I offer as evidence any daily schedule on the CHILLER television channel. ( SYFY will work as well.) I hope most fans don't find that too harsh or distressing. Quite simply, (to paraphrase a rule first proposed by the legendary Theodore Sturgeon), "90% of everything is bad". I believe that's true for dinners, lawyers, poets, automobile mechanics, hotels, popular music, what have you. When things are mass produced, the quality is often the first to go. Perhaps "bad" is a loaded term. Certainly "average" is better, less loaded than "mediocre", but the affect is the same. As a perceptive gentleman who worked on an auto production line told Studs Terkel in his marvelous book "Working" , "What if Michelangelo had to knock out 100 Mona Lisas per day?" A very good point.

Now, there are several other reasons for a dearth of quality in works produced in our genre. (And I will certainly include books, short stories, graphic novels, and the like as well; however, because of the availability of current technology, I believe it is far easier to produce a film than a novel or other form of expression. This may indeed be changing, but it's still customary to go through a publishing house before a book comes out, and that helps in a small way to boost the implied worth. I'll discuss that more in a moment.)

Point Number Two: Horror is very easy to produce on film.

Before I hear the howls of dismay, let me point out that I didn't say it's easy to make a good Horror film; quite the contrary. I believe Horror, along with Comedy, are the two most difficult fields to work in effectively. And just as I've sat through many, many comedies without so much as smiling to myself, I've sat through many a so-call "Horror" film without feeling the least tiny chill. And that's not good.

Still, I believe that today, as it has been in the past, it is extremely easy to produce what is categorically known as a "Horror" movie. This is a matter of exploitation rather than genuine effort. The Drive-In theaters of the 1950s were filled with various Beasts, Teenage Werewolves and Frankensteins, Monsters, Creatures, Phantoms and the like, all of which featured the archetypes of the genre: scary music, screaming, half-dressed damsels, rubber-masked spectres and fiends lurching out of the darkness, old castles or crumbling cemeteries, fog, thunder and lightning. The list could be checked off comfortably from your car; the elements as comfortable as slipping into an old pair of sneakers, and no doubt equally as frightening. Teenagers, of whom many of the films were the target audience, could sit back and relax, enjoy a bit of excitement and the occasional jump, and pass the time pleasantly.

None of it was really threatening, and for all the "tsk-tsk" heard from the parents, authorities and guardians of moral character, these movies were far from disturbing or blood-chilling; as Stephen King points out in his invaluable guide to Horror In Popular Culture "Danse Macabre" , it was all as respectable as a Republican luncheon; the alien appeared, wrecked some minor havoc, and was dispersed of quickly and neatly, and the American Way Of Life went on undisturbed. (Which is why the genuinely artistic and risk-taking efforts - PSYCHO , DIABOLIQUE , the Hammer Films, CURSE OF THE DEMON , etc, went through the country and genre like a rocket.) I believe one of the reasons for the success of THE TWILIGHT ZONE , when it appeared in September 1959 (besides the obvious quality) was that America had never seen anything like it before. Mr. Serling himself addressed this regarding his "fallen statue" from a writer of social drama to a "fantasist":

"Here's what the program isn't : it's not a monster rally or spook show. There will be nothing formula'd in it; nothing telegraphed, nothing so nostalgically familiar that an audience can join the actors in duets."

So the general consensus in Hollywood was that it was "easy" to make a Horror film - a scary monster, some screaming women, and you're done - and the money rolled in from teenagers whose critical faculties are not always as finely tuned as they should be. (And that's not necessarily a bad thing; if we didn't get wiser as we got older, there would be no reason for it.) And although there is a great deal of affection for the "B" movies of that time, I think we can all agree that they weren't supposed to be Art (with a capital A ) and were, for the most part, cinematic junk food. In the end, as usual, it was all about the money.

Flash forward to today - because of advances in technology, anyone can make and edit a professional looking film, and distribute it to the public. We now have cost-effective digital cameras and recording equipment, over 200 (and growing) cable channels, direct access through film websites and mail-order via the Internet, and DVD copying capacity.

In true American fashion, almost anyone, with very little advance money, can create, promote and distribute a movie to a mass audience. This guarantees an audience far greater than the Drive-In and local theater access during the 1960s and 70s.

This is a good thing. This is also a bad thing. Charles Dickens would smile in recognition.

A good thing, because amateur filmmakers (and I mean that phrase only to the extent that these individuals are not affiliated with any studio or production facility) can, by sheer dint of imagination, create something wonderful and have it seen by as many people as possible. Ideally, in a perfect world, the technological advances should allow far greater diversity and bold, imaginative filmmaking to take the forefront of venues literally begging for product and entertainment. The only thing holding these pioneers back is their own imaginations.

The bad thing? Their own imaginations.

I want to be fair, truly. But there are many people making movies today whose imaginations are sadly lacking in anything worth viewing. Again, as in the 1950s, making money is the impetus, and the modern Horror Film has again been reduced to a comfortable series of stereotypes (although some of the archetypes have changed, a stereotype is a stereotype is a stereotype). Most films today can be written by rote, according to a common outline:

A group of individuals, probably teenagers - one male, quiet and thoughtful; one female, quiet, shy thoughtful, looking splendid without her clothes on. One rude, masculine sports type male, one beautiful, self-centered female, also looking splendid without clothes on. One selfish, self-centered male, and female, or both. One nerdish technophile, male or female or both. Various females in states of undress.

A remote location - a town under a curse, an old church, an old school, an old farm (oddly, no modern films take place in high rises for some reason; acrophobia, probably). A crazy old man/woman who may be part of the danger/an innocent eccentric who knows more than he/she can say. An old legend. Mysterious disappearances.

Activities - late-night parties, skinny dipping (very popular no matter what the season), drinking, lovers games, a school dance, a semester break.

And after 30 minutes of set-up, the menace is revealed to be zombies/vampire/backwoods inbred mutants/white slavers/sadistic torturers. And the carnage commences with chainsaws, machetes, hunting knives, power drills, shotguns, shovels, pickaxes, spears, bows and arrows, other implements of destruction. Left at the end is the quiet, thoughtful couple/the lone female survivor, who overcomes the zombies/vampires/torturers - until one last survivor springs into the frame, and a sequel is assured.

All rote, all done before, all retreads/remakes/reimaginings/revisions of movies done better, by creators with imaginations to spare. Can we speak plainly? After Tobe Hooper's nerve jangling original THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE , why do we need to have WRONG TURN and OFFSPRING and DETOUR and BLOOD SHED and (yes, even for those who loved it, I apologize) THE DEVIL'S REJECTS and the needless remake? After the grimly clever SAW and the dark SE7EN (probably the last word on serial killer/torture films in my humble opinion), do we really need to watch HOSTEL and LIVE ANIMALS and THE BUTCHER and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and THE COLLECTOR and  CHAOS and WOLF CREEK and CAPTIVITYad nauseum , quite literally? After George Romero's breakthrough one-two punch of DAMN OF THE DEAD/DAY OF THE DEAD , after Danny Boyle's brilliant reimagining 28 DAYS LATER , do we really need BOY EATS GIRL and ZOMBIE TOWN and THE RAGE and (in my admittedly minority opinion) the needless remake?

(It becomes a telling point when the brilliant SHAUN OF THE DEAD skewers the zombie-movie clichés so thoroughly that they flip around and become moments of genuine fear, dread and terror.)

Some of this mediocrity can be laid at the feet of the filmmakers themselves. Without trying to be unkind, many, many filmmakers simply lack the talent to try anything truly original, or approach a previously explored idea in a new and fresh way. Many of them are quite capable of setting up a shot, focusing a camera correctly, typing dialogue that can at least be uttered intelligibly, lighting a set or location, and positioning their actors appropriately. This is as damning with faint praise as I can possibly imagine. Many of them do not relate to the outside world in general, and haven't opened a book (other than as a school assignment) in years. Their references are only other films, and even more troubling, only other successful films, and their slavish attempt to copy what they enjoyed in their youth (instead of trying to expand on what they saw) creates only pale imitations of work done better earlier. They simply don't have the ability to rise above their station (any more than many of the filmmakers in the 1950s were able to do more than what they did).

That sounds terribly elitist; so be it. The filmmakers who succeeded in times past - Roger Corman, George Romero, Val Lewton, Tobe Hooper, even William Castle - had similar constraints of budget and subject matter, and were similarly looked down on by mainstream and more lavish studios and production houses. Yet they overcame their limitations through sheer dint of inspiration and force of will, creating memories that more than stand today with anything produced by auteurs with more money and technical expertise.

Along with the simple gosh-wow juvenile excitement of the special effects; again, due to increased technology and better materials, severed limbs, rotting corpses, vampire fangs, glowing eyes, bloodthirsty mutations and their kin are easier to produce to good effect. There are gallons of CGI blood splattering the walls, and anyone friendly with their neighborhood butcher can gather enough entrails, pig and cattle intestines, raw meat and other material of the flesh to make any set a virtual slaughterfest, with grue enough for any undiscerning teen. But the shock value, to those who regularly frequent the genre and have been doing so for some time, are becoming extremely limiting, and throwing remains of a zombie kill at the camera doesn't elicit the fright or fascination that it once held. It's been seen before, and now can even be viewed during family viewing hours on television via CSI and HOUSE MD .

All right...besides the limitations of some filmmaker's talents, what else motivates much of this slavish, unblinking, sodden imitation? To quote Misters Woodward and Bernstein in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN : "Follow the money" (A line created by screenwriter William Goldman, which was never actually said by any of the Watergate sources.) Again, as in the 1950s, Art is not the consideration. Money is, making a fast buck by appealing to a limited audience that asks for nothing more than spending a few moments away from their everyday lives and existences, an audience with no critical faculties save enjoying a comforting barrage of images and stories that they've become accustomed to, without threatening or imperiling their lifestyles. I understand that may sound unreasonably harsh, but the filmmakers would not be making these movies without an audience eager to embrace them.

So bad is the desire to simply make money, as opposed to good films, that now there are actually production companies that attempt to rush into direct-to-DVD release movies that are "inspired by" (more polite than saying "ripped off from" ) current big budget or studio-produced fare. Films like THE DAY THE EARTH STOPPED, I AM OMEGA, 666: THE CHILD, HILLSIDE CANNIBALS and HALLOWEEN NIGHT are the testament to the adage, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" , except that no one feels extremely flattered after viewing one of these efforts.

(And complaining about how bad a movie was after the fact on a blog or Internet chat site does absolutely nothing to discourage anyone; the producers already have your hard-earned money in their pockets, and are laughing all the way to the bank.)

So in the end, I hear you complaining, so what? Who does this really hurt? Movies are supposed to be fun, not serious all the time. (Except that at one time, so-called "popcorn" movies consisted of STAR WARS , RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK , GHOSTBUSTERS, ALIENS and other films that were genuinely well-made, artistically-driven and crafted pieces of cinema. Things have rather gone downhill from those times, and I defy you to argue that point.)

Well, fine then. No one is really hurt, I suppose. If your only goal in dabbling in any art form is simply to make money, then have at it, although there are much easier ways to achieve this. Become an accountant, perhaps. Go back to school and get that real estate or insurance license. Become a certified nurse or medical assistant. These are all fine occupations that will ensure that you have a fine home and nice car to drive…

Where all this becomes a problem, of course, is for the rest of us who demand something more for our viewing experiences than simply disposing of a few hours. It also becomes a problem when genuinely original works are presented to the jade public, whose senses have been dulled by dross for such a long period of time, that they don't know what to make of them. Look at the backlash attendant on PARANORMAL ACTIVITY ; many called it "boring" and "a waste of time". It's true; after dining for ages on fast food, you can lose your taste for Duck L'Orange . Until, as has happened, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY makes a financial killing; then it too can be added to the clichés and imitators eager to cash in on a current craze, and we can look forward to countless hand-held camera movies in the years to come.

I have some more to say about this, some particular examples to put the final nail in the argument, and an actual suggestion or two to improve matters. But a little vitriol goes a long way, and I'll save all that for next month. Do return; I promise to be as polite as possible.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

DECEMBER
2010

 

Once again the Christmas Season beckons, as a time for merriment and good cheer, with a special place for the scary and spectral…

When I first began telling my human companions that Christmas was the traditional time for telling ghostly tales, most would look at me oddly and wonder if I was pulling their leg or another extremity. When I carefully explained, they would most often turn the idea over in their heads and contemplate it carefully. And I agree that initially, without knowing the tradition, particularly the way the Holiday Season is celebrated in this country, the idea of Christmas ghost stories can be an oxymoron.

But over the past few years the idea seems to be truly taking hold, not only here on the Lost Coast (which, I must modestly admit, I have had a great deal of success) but across the country as Christmas parties complete with spooky storytelling is coming back into vogue. Go to any website and you will now find collections of ghost stories gathered and written especially for the Yule time. To say I'm delighted is an understatement; this season has always been as special to me as the October one, and I'm very glad to be out and about and a small part of it.

And so, with your kind indulgence, I would like to present an essay that I wrote a few years ago, when I first alighted here in Humboldt County , CA . I'm quite proud of it, and I think it does an adequate job of explaining to those still dubious why this time of year is appropriate to those with affection for the macabre, and why the dark trimmings of the spectral tale is not entirely out of place during this season of peace and good will. Please forgive the recycling, and I hope you enjoy this.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *


My human companion Bob was walking through Redwood Acres in December, taking in the Christmas Craft Fair, when he came upon someone who also participated in the Halloween Festival. She inquired as to my health, and then said something to the effect of, "It's a shame Carpathian can't take on some other persona; perhaps if he were to dress more cheerfully he could tell stories at Christmas time."

"Well," said Bob, "you do know that Christmas is the traditional time for telling ghostly tales."

To which the woman laughed. "Yeah. Good luck with that here!"

Alas. She doesn't get it.

Another performer at the Christmas Fair understood, though. "Heck yeah! Marley! Scrooge! Absolutely! Ghost stories at Christmas! Indeed!"

Now he got it.

I've talked on many occasions on the impetus of the genre of Dark Fantasy, often defending it against the narrow-minded accusations that it promotes horror and misery. I've stated often that by focusing on the terrifying and the ghastly, it actually brings hope and wonder into relief, and actually celebrates light.

All this is quite true.

But it is also true that darkness is as much a part of the Horror Tale as humor is a part of comedy, and tears a part of tragedy. And although I maintain we do not reveal and wallow in it, darkness is a most important ingredient. Without it, Horror would not cut as deep into the myth pool as it does.

But I understand that some people are uncomfortable with the idea of presenting despair, pain, deformity, fear, death, disease, trauma, violence, and other forms of apocalyptic and allegorical imagery as entertainment. Many seem to feel that such thoughts should be suppressed, pushed to the very bottom of our collective consciousness and left to fester unattended.

The trouble with that, of course, is that when we least expect it, those feelings and emotions come bubbling to the surface, oft times when we least expect. A sudden illness, a close brush with collision in an automobile, the news of a far-away natural disaster or a report of a child abducted, and our nightmares come clawing into the light, refusing to be mollified.

Look: there are many facets to the human condition. (And despite being unhuman, I know of what I speak; I've observed you all long enough...) One of the oldest and most powerful is fear; it dates back to the times of the cavemen huddled together in the darkness, wondering whether that eerie moaning sound in the distance was simply the wind or the cry of an ancient menace approaching, and staring fearfully at those reflected specks of light from the forest that might only be harmless woodland creatures...but might be something far worse...

It is a simple fact that of all the emotions, only fear is universally shared. Many on this earth have never experienced love, or compassion, or hatred, or want. But everyone has been afraid. It is a sad fact, and I don't necessarily think it's a good thing, but it is true.

And because it is true, the simple act of facing what frights us the most has a paradoxically calming effect. If we can give name to our fears, then it diminishes them, however slightly. The term is catharsis; the clawing through the gloom to find the dawn.

A perennial Christmas favorite is the classic Frank Capra movie IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. And what most people remember about the film are the sentimental moments: Jimmy Stewart wooing Donna Reed outside her house, soaking wet from taking a dip in the high school swimming pool; or coming home to a leaking, decrepit house for their honeymoon, or staring down the wicked financier Mr. Potter as he tries to buy George Bailey's father's business.

But…the movie, as sweet as those moments are, is also filled with a terrible darkness. Recall the druggist, half-crazed from the news of his son's death at war, almost poisoning a little girl with the wrong medicine, and brutally slapping young George when he points out the error. Listen to George, panicked and near hysteria, as he chastises Uncle Billy for losing the money. And see the tight, manic expression on Jimmy Stewart's face as he runs from his mother's house, being told that she has no son named George and Billy is in an asylum. Mr. Stewart runs straight towards the camera into a huge close-up, and his eyes slowly take in a world gone mad around him, finally staring straight out into the audience.

I believe it is these dark moments that make the film so compelling, because as dark as the truths are, so much brighter will be the light of redemption when George Bailey has made it through that endless night and returns to a world where he made his mark.

Catharsis. We suffer with George Bailey, and breathe deeply his relief when the nightmare is over, and in return our nightmares are diminished, just a bit.

For those who shy away from the terror and dread of the Dark Fantastic tale, there is indeed truth in the perception that darkness is a mitigating factor. But I say again, we do not celebrate the darkness; we face it and walk boldly through it to embrace the light. The worst may come, but not yet. Right now, all is well. The nightmare is over, and we've awakened.

Those of us who love and understand Horror are not revelers in the dark.

We're simply not afraid of it.

At this time of year, as we look forward to merriment and celebration, let us not forget the darkness, and let us gather together against it.

Merry Christmas, my Friends.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

NOVEMBER
2010

 

At this time of year, people begin to make lists; some for their personal edification, such as possible New Year's resolutions or chores to be completed before the winter, and some for posterity. Certainly the pundits in the arts are quite busy; critics of film, literature, music, television, et al are busy putting together their choices for the best films, the best books, the best works of 2010.

Of course, choosing any “best” is by nature a purely personal endeavor, subject to the prejudices and tastes of the individual doing the selecting, even when adhering to certain critical standards of what makes a good story, how to correctly frame a film shot, and what chord progressions are most pleasing to the ear.

At times the decisions are quite arbitrary; tastes change, after all, and more often than not a truly trendsetting or genre-shattering work of art is greeted with everything from perplexed amusement to open hostility. Quite honestly, art often depends upon the distance of time to truly determine the worth of a presentation. It's often good to remember that both THE WIZARD OF OZ and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE , two perennial classics, were initially box office and critical failures, and that both the film 2001: A SPACE ODDYSSEY and the novel “Stranger In A Strange Land” were greeted with derision not only by mainstream audiences, but by the science fiction community itself. Some works are simply to big to be judged immediately.

And in the end, of course, people are only human, after all. One critic remembers his shock and dismay at looking back at his work years later and having forgotten to list VERTIGO as one of the best films the year it was released. So any “best” list should probably be used as a guide to works that you may have overlooked in the past, or as a frame of reference in the field o your enthusiasm; perhaps as a gentle nudge to explore a book or movie that you might have ignored previously.

And as happens every year on Halloween, friends gather together at parties, rent a few videos, shiver and scream to the classic works of Whale and Romero and Hitchcock, thrilling to the shadow images of their favorite nightmares being broadcast in darkened rooms. Or perhaps they investigate a late night revival at their local movie house, and revel at the monsters lurching across the large screen.

But then…either in between DVDs, or after the show, getting a quick bite to eat, the question is asked. It seems harmless at first, but within moments voices are raised, words become heated, and, in some truly extreme cases, punches are thrown. The evening degenerates into chaos, and all from the innocent asking of a simple query:

What is the best horror film ever made?

Shudder at the portent in those words, my friends.

In some ways, the question is meaningless. How do you quantify fear? What frightens one makes another laugh out loud, and vice versa. Fear, like love, is a many splendid thing, and different for each and every individual. As I stated above, it's a matter of taste and personal preference; like chocolate or vanilla; Yet, there are recognized classics in the genre; works made with such skill and daring and import that they reverberate down through the ages, cutting across lines of personal desire into universal accolades. There are literally films that have changed the face of cinema today. Those can certainly be argued.

Two brief examples:

For Halloween the website www.hollywire.com ran a list of the 15 best Horror films of the 1980s. Why the 1980s? Because, according to Michael, the author, it was “…one of the best decades for Horror EVER!” (I‘m certain Poe and Lovecraft will be delighted to know that…but I digress snarkily…)

The list of films, from least to greatest, was as follows:

•  THE STUFF
•  CUJO
•  FRIGHT NIGHT
•  THEY LIVE
•  FRIDAY THE 13 TH
•  PET SEMETARY
•  HELLRAISER
•  THE EVIL DEAD
•  THE LOST BOYS
•  NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
•  POLTERGEIST
•  THE RE-ANIMATOR
•  AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON
•  EVIL DEAD 2
•  THE SHINING

At first glance, I can't argue with some of the choices selected. Certainly THE SHINING , NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET , THE EVIL DEAD , POLTERGEIST , HELLRAISER , AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON , and RE-ANIMATOR will be found on several “best” lists. All of them have genuine merit, and some can make claim as being landmarks in their own right (such as the transformation scenes in AMERICAN WEREWOLF , and the fact that HELLRAISER was Clive Barker's cinematic debut).

But others are simply puzzling. I never really appreciated the charms of FRIGHT NIGHT or THE LOST BOYS , although they have their admirers. I believe FRIDAY THE 13 TH is an abysmal film, responsible for sinking our genre into indefensible depths in the mainstream, but I will reluctantly acknowledge it's influence on the field. But THE STUFF ? Certainly not Larry Cohen's best, or most coherent. THEY LIVE ? I consider that one of the touchstones in the regrettable slide of John Carpenter's once assured career. PET SEMETARY ? As much as I admire the novel or perhaps because I admire it), I find the film lacking in many ways.

You see the danger? How's right and who's wrong? And is there even a “right” or “wrong”? Since there are critical standards to be huned to, certainly we can make some impartial judgments. Can't we?

Try this, then:

Jovanka Vuckovic is an established name in the genre from her editing of Rue Morgue Magazine , arguably the best Horror periodical today. She is currently working on her first film, THE CAPTURED BIRD . (You can follow her progress on the official website www.thecapturedbird.com.) She was asked to provide a list of her favorite films for the Halloween Season – not the best or scariest, but her favorites, particularly some of the more obscure efforts that don't automatically come to mind. In no particular order, her choices are as follows:

•  DEATHDREAM
•  SESSION 9
•  THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER
•  “The Drop Of Water” from BLACK SABBATH
•  CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD
•  THE BEAST WITHIN
•  THE EXORCIST III
•  THE CHANGLING
•  DEAD AND BURIED
•  DAY OF THE DEAD
•  THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH
•  FROM BEYOND
•  REPULSION
•  THE HOUR OF THE WOLF
•  FRAILTY
•  THE ENTITY
•  ONIBABA
•  MAY
•  THE HOWLING
•  LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH
•  THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE
•  CALVAIRE
•  “Cutting Moments” a short film
•  “Aftermath” a short film
•  AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESION
•  THE SENTINEL
•  PRINCE OF DARKNESS
•  THE INNOCENTS
•  INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)
•  THE REFLECTING SKIN
•  NEAR DARK

My tastes probably run closer to Ms. Vuckovic's than the previous list; I might still quibble with some choices ( AMITYVILLE II ? Meh…) but any list that contains ONIBABA , THE REFLECTING SKIN , LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH , THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER , REPULSION , DEAD AND BURIED and DEATHDREAM offers thoughtful, powerful and very dark fodder for the adventurous filmgoer. There are more than a few riches to be had here.

You see, in discussing what is “best” or “worthy” filmmaking, it's not as easy as simply choosing films that you enjoy. Some films may not be a favorite, but can be recognized as an icon, a work that all others must be judged against. Arthur C. Clarke, the writer of such science fiction classics as the aforementioned 2001: A SPACE ODDYSSEY , as well as “Childhood's End” , and “Rendezvous With Rama” , once expressed the opinion that when discussing genre films, there should be two lists, which may not be mutually exclusive: the best, and the most important.

So…where do I stand? I've decided to expand this to four lists: my own personal favorites, which may feature movies on neither list and are subject to change whenever a new film comes along, as well as movies that have frightened me the most, which is an incredibly subjective selection, and before I hear the cries of, “But Carpathian! That didn't frighten me! ”, please bear in mind that I will no doubt express the same views of some of your preferences.)

I'm also including my reasoning for my nominations. In doing this I'm quite happy to stir up some controversy, the occasional heated discussion, and an angry email or two. Fire away; I don't mind.

Very well, then. Nature abhors a coward. Here are my choices, and even 13 of each. Firstly,

THE MOST IMPORTANT HORROR FILMS OF ALL TIMES! (Films that influenced the Horror cinema.)

•  THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI – The first true popular horror film, a silent classic set in a surreal world of magic and madness that bore no resemblance to ours. It still influences today's efforts. (See THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS again after you rent this one, just to compare.)

•  THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA - The definitive Lon Chaney performance. The scene where the lovely singer unmasks him and we see his full hideous features still has the power to unsettle.

•  (tie) FRANKENSTEIN/DRACULA - Lugosi! Karloff! What else need be said?

•  DEAD OF NIGHT - The first popular horror ‘anthology' movie. Every film from TALES OF THE CRYPT to TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE , from CREEPSHOW to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE owes something to this classic. The cherry on top is the final story starring a brilliant Michael Redgrave. It's the very best ‘ventriloquist dummy with a mind of it's own' story ever done!

•  CAT PEOPLE - Not the remake; the original 1942 film classic, the first Horror film produced by Val Lewton, an extraordinary producer whose run of intelligent, adult Horror films produced on a miniscule budget have yet to be equaled in many ways. Influencing movies from CURSE OF THE DEMON to THE HAUNTING , Mr. Lewton's repertoire stamped visual Horror indelibly.

•  (tie) THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN/ HORROR OF DRACULA - The birth of Hammer Horror, the classic genre film studio from England , and our first introductions to the teaming of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Blood never flowed more red, and fear was never so brightly colored. I believe DRACULA is a better film; nevertheless, FRANKENSTEIN was the first.

•  PSYCHO - The movie that made everyone afraid to take a shower. THE Horror phenomenon of the 1960's; even people who didn't like horror films went to this one.

•  NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD - The movie that broke the mold; zombies coming out of the grave were suddenly deadly serious. Graphic violence, believable characters and sociopolitical overtones, with NO happy ending.

•  THE EXORCIST - As with PSYCHO , THE horror phenomenon of the 1970's.

•  JAWS - One of the first Horror blockbusters; it changed the way films were produced and distributed, single-handedly creating the Summer Movie Season. Oh, it also started the career of a rather obscured art-film director named Steven Something-or-other…

•  FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH - Many who know me will find this listing very surprising. As I mentioned above, yes, I consider this film to be a wretched excuse of a movie, badly made and horribly unimaginative. However, its influence cannot be denied; it single-handedly created the horror subgenre of the ‘dead teenager movie'. Purists may argue that HALLOWEEN is the classic film, and I agree, but FRIDAY was the template.

•  THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE - In addition to being a terrifying low-budget masterpiece, this earned its listing by creating another horror icon. Before this movie, the tool was only used for chopping firewood. Now, what haunted house would be complete without a chainsaw? Things have never been the same.

•  THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT - I've thought long and hard on this one; obviously it was controversial at the time, but it's influence doesn't seem as great now as I thought it would be on release. Nevertheless, its shadow falls long over PARANORMAL ACTIVITY , George Romero's DIARY OF THE DEAD , CLOVERFIELD , and too many others. Simply put, in the world of Reality Television, there would be no GHOSTHUNTERS shows without BLAIR WITCH's success.

HONORABLE MENTIONS : NOSFERATU (The classic silent vampire film), SHIVERS (David Cronenberg's first feature), and THE WOLF MAN (Another cinematic icon, and the introduction of Lon Chaney Jr).


Ready to argue yet? Try these:

THE BEST HORROR MOVIES OF ALL TIME!

•  PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (with Lon Chaney)

* THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN - That rare sequel that emerges even better than the original film. An imaginative, dark fantastic tour-de-force from James Whale.

•  CURSE OF THE DEMON - Producer Val Lewton made some of the best horror films ever; Intelligent and eerie. Director Jacques Tourneur learned well from his tutelage, and this subtle work of terror is a masterpiece. A close runner-up: CAT PEOPLE .

•  THE HAUNTING - The original, not the tepid remake. This remains the best haunted house movie ever. No exceptions. Period. End of discussion.

•  PSYCHO

•  DIABOLIQUE - as groundbreaking and frightening as PSYCHO, in it's own way it's success ushered in the acceptance of foreign Horror, and opened the doors for Bava, Argento, Fulci and others.

•  THE BIRDS - Hitchcock's follow-up to PSYCHO ushered in two important touchstones in Horror; the “nature run amuck” sub-genre that includes everything from THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN through WILLARD to SIGNS and THE HAPPENING, and the unsettling, unexplained reasons for the senseless terror inflicted on mankind. In the past, pseudo-scientific explanations reigned over giant radioactive ants and unleashed demonic powers. After this film, the answer was simple: “Why did this horrible thing happen? Because horrible things happen.”

•  THE EXORCIST - Its phenomenal success was mentioned above. What made it such a powerful work were the performances by a uniformly excellent cast, and the direction, which was almost documentary in its depiction of horror in the suburbs.

•  CARRIE - The very best adaptation of a Stephen King horror novel, and some will argue the last good movie made by Brian DePalma. Sissy Spacek deserved her Oscar nomination.

•  (tie) DAWN OF THE DEAD / MARTIN - Two of George Romero's classic works. DAWN builds on the horror and politics of NIGHT by adding a dash of black humor and satire. MARTIN is a quiet, chilling character study of a vampire. Horror films don't get better than these.

•  (tie) DUEL / JAWS - Steven Spielberg was directing episodes of COLUMBO and NIGHT GALLERY when he was tapped to direct the adaptation of Richard Matheson's thriller of a motorist pursued by a killer truck. That movie put him on the Hollywood map, was released in theaters in Europe to wide acclaim, and got him the JAWS assignment. The menace of the shark is very similar to the horror of the diesel monster, and did for the beach and ocean what PSYCHO did for showers.


•  ALIEN - What could have been a remake of IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE became an exercise in almost unbearable suspense and claustrophobic horror, thanks to Ridley Scott's direction and a superb cast lead by Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, and Yaphet Kotto.

•  PAN'S LABRYNTH - A masterpiece that's shows what cinematic Horror and Dark Fantasy can be. A young girl's fantasy life intrudes on the day-to-day misery of her life in Fascist Spain. But are the magical and menacing creatures around her only in her imagination? Frightening, poetic and absolutely magnificent.

HONORABLE MENTIONS : THE NIGHT STRANGLER (The second Kolchak movie, and another sequel better than the original), DEAD OF NIGHT , THE HOWLING (Transformation movies were forever changed, and the fiercely-intelligent script was by John Sayles), BLUE VELVET (David Lynch's suburban sideshow), SEVEN (The best and most brutal serial killer movie ever made. Comic deaths will never again be so comic), and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT .


Want some more? Here are MY OWN PERSONAL FAVORITES . (This list has been known to change from time to time...)

•  HORROR OF DRACULA

2) (tie) THE NIGHT STRANGLER / THE NIGHT STALKER / TRILOGY OF TERROR - Dan Curtis at his very best!

3) (tie) PSYCHO / THE BIRDS - Hitchcock at his finest; the finale of THE BIRDS rivals ALIEN in claustrophobia.

•  SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES - Bradbury and Disney: perfect together! Wonderful direction by Jack Clayton, who did the marvelous THE INNOCENTS .

•  JACOB'S LADDER - An examination of the afterlife, of reality and illusion, grounded by a bravura performance by Tim Robbins. A thinking man's Horror film.

•  (tie) DAWN OF THE DEAD / MARTIN

•  CURSE OF THE DEMON

•  AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON Another great transformation, and an almost perfect mixture of horror and humor.

•  THE SHINING - Kubrick and King; although the author was disappointed, I found the adaptation to be surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the book, and unnervingly tense. A textbook example on how to build slow, steady unease into explosive terror.

•  POLTERGEIST - A study of the nuclear family under siege; heartfelt and powerful work by Tobe Hooper and near perfect performances by JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson (his “I love you” whispered in the dark to his son is still heartbreaking) Beatrice Strait and Zelda Rubinstein. An added note: one of the few Horror films where there are no fatalities; the fear is sustained by mood alone…

•  THE OMEN - A beautifully photographed work of suspense and Grand Guingol, with grue and subtlety balanced expertly by Richard Donner and his uniformly fine cast.

•  DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS - More Hammer Horror, this time in anthology form.

•  SCANNERS - David Cronenberg's first major commercial success.


One final list, almost a confessional. Take this as you will. These are the movie that have frightened me the most, haunting my thoughts and dreams since I first encountered them. I won't argue they're all masterpieces (although I think they're very effectively made) but they are terrifying:

•  THE EXORCIST
•  ALIEN
•  AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON
•  NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
•  THE OMEN
•  ALICE, SWEET ALICE
•  PSYCHO
•  THE SHINING
•  HALLOWEEN
•  DELIVERENCE
•  ANGEL HEART
•  POLTERGEIST
•  TRILOGY OF TERROR

So there you have it; an extended list of films, enough to fill a year's worth of Halloween celebrations. Argue, discuss, debate, as you will, but most of these are available in one form or another on DVD, and if you're intrigued enough to search out some of the titles you may not have seen, then I will be extremely satisfied.

A word of note: I've not indicated which are which, but naturally enough more than a few of these are for adults and older teens alone . Parents, please use your discretion.

Enjoy your viewing, everyone!

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

OCTOBER
2010

 

I'm quite proud of this month's site; I believe it captures the spirit of October quite well. Inside you'll find two remembrances; one of which is of my traveling companions for several years, The Patient Creatures. (You'll find it on my CAMERA OBSCURA Page for this month; it will then move to its own page for the future.)

Music has always been an important part of my celebration, coming to fruition with the opening of the Last Call, the undead tavern that my fellow Creatures inhabited many years ago at the Haunted Theatre, the premier haunted attraction outside of Philadelphia, PA. In the corner of the tavern was a coffin –shaped jukebox that played a wide selection of rock n' roll tunes with a macabre or Halloween theme – everything from “Don't Fear The Reaper” and  “Bad Moon Rising” to “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Science Fiction Double Feature” . It was a glorious collection of songs, what we liked to refer to as the ULTIMATE Halloween Collection. (It was inspired by the work of one of my human companions named Jeff, who had previously put together the ULTIMATE Christmas Collection a few years before…)

Now, this was, as I mentioned, more than a few years ago. Nowadays it's quite common for every Spirit Halloween Shop and party supply store to carry a CD of “Halloween Party Tunes” . (Several CDs, in fact; there are a plethora of them on the market, including one by HorrorHost Elvira from a few years back.) I can't count the numbers of selections playing loudly over the intercom system as we wandered the festive streets of Six Flags America during their FRIGHT FEST celebration. (Although, truth be told, as much as I love the songs, I had heard quite enough of the soundtrack to THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS by the time November 1 strolled around…)

And, of course, there are now whole bands such as Midnight Syndicate that have dedicated themselves to composing and performing Gothic and macabre music exclusively. But at the time we assembled our collection, there were NO Halloween or October musical anthologies for sale or trade. None! And I've often lamented the fact that if we had been a bit more persistent in our marketing attempts, and lead the way with promoting our collection, we would now all be richer than kings. (Fortunately wandering specters have little use for money…although it's certainly helpful…)

With the steady growth in popularity for this time of year and the number of events held, the October music business is very healthy indeed. And this is certainly a good thing; I have long used music in my own performances (often provided by my talented companion and fellow storyteller Seabury Gould), and the larger variety to choose from, the more discerning I can be in using the melodies for my own needs. If I have any complaints at all, it's simply that there seems to be a sameness in the musical collections offered. How many times, after all, can you hear Michael Jackson's “Thriller” , or the “Ghostbusters” theme? (As one of the Patient Creatures once lamented, October is the one time each year that every single radio station in the country dusts off its copy of “The Monster Mash” and plays it ad nauseum …)

Yet there are so many unsung possibilities that anyone with a fair amount of imagination and an IPOD can probably put together a lovely collection on their own. Everyone's heard Screaming Jay Hawkins' “I Put A Spell On You” , but have you ever heard the Creedence Clearwater Revival version? How about Genesis' “Home By The Sea” , a story of someone coming face-to-face with the inhabitants of a haunted house? “Dead Man's Party” and “Weird Science” are seasonal staples, and rightly so, but Oingo Boingo had more than a few more macabre tracks on their various albums that are worthy of a listen, including “No One Lives Forever” and “Tender Lumplings”.

A few years ago, someone was kind enough to send me a mix CD of her selection of Halloween songs. I was very impressed by the forethought put into it, and by what she considered appropriate for the Season. There were songs that didn't mention ghosts, goblins, graveyards, or any of the other iconic denizens of the holiday, yet they still seemed to instill a sense of the Dark Magical. How about “Suicide Blonde” by INXS? Or “The Night In My Veins” by The Pretenders? “Spider” by Oingo Boingo? “Killer In The House” by Adam Ant? “Jack, You're Dead” , by Louis Jordan? Of course, it also included a theme by Bernard Hermann, a reggae ditty named “Dracula, Prince Of Darkness” (which truly has to be heard to be believed) and some others that seemed to fit comfortably with the month's activities.

Interestingly, the Golden Age of Halloween tunes may well have been during the 1950s, when groups would turn out such novelty recordings as “Graveyard Rock” , “Zombie Jamboree” , and “ Mr. Ghost Goes To Town” , among others. Vlad, the vampiric member of the Ghoul A Go-Go trio, has made a hobby of collecting obscure Horror tunes to play for the dance segments of their show. (You can see one of their videos by clicking HERE.) I think he'd be pleased with the following selection from the CD. It was recorded by The Diamonds, who had a hit with “Little Darling” in 1957. You can hear it by clicking on the artwork of the Universal Monsters below. I hereby dedicate it to that rockin' horror fan, Vlad. Great Googly Moo, Good Sir!



If you're looking for some new music in the classical Halloween mode, you can't go wrong with a talented young lady named Kristen Lawrence, whose website features her CDs “A Broom With A View” , “Arachnitect” and “Vampire Empire” . You can find her by going to our LINKS Page and clicking on the Website Of The Month chosen for October!



This tune was a popular one with the Creatures from the various soundtracks at Six Flags; this video is dedicated respectfully to the late Ben Chapman, a true gentleman, for reasons that will be clear by the conclusion. This is from Dave Edmunds, of “Girls Talk” and “I Knew The Bride When She Used To Rock And Roll” fame. Click on the Creature balladeer below!



And I can't resist sharing this gem; it was originally performed by a group called Rose & The Arrangements, but gained notoriety from it's exposure on the beloved Dr. Demento Radio Show. When we performed our annual Halloween show a few years back, my storytelling companion (and not-so-closet Dr. Demento Fan) lead the singing while I accompanied him on piano. I find this a delight, and enjoy the various references (“Sorry about that…”). A big Thank You! to Ms. Jeni Sidwell for this clever video collage; click on the image below, turn up the volume on your speakers, and sing along! OLE'!



(Yes, I know that's the giant ant from the film THEM . You try finding a photo of a giant cockroach…!)

I wish a wonderfully spooky, magical and very musical October Season to you, yours, and everyone! Happy Halloween, my Friends!

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

SEPTEMBER
2010

 

There is a terrific show being broadcast on BBC America called BEING HUMAN ; it is apparently still going strong in its native country while we are receiving Season Two. (And do you find the time lag between the shows produced and the shows brought over here a bit frustrating? You get caught up in a series like AFTERLIFE , and look forward to seeing it continue, only to discover that it was cancelled a few years ago and everyone has moved on to other projects. Do you find that troublesome too? I thought you might…)

In any case…before I started ranting, I was saying that BEING HUMAN is a marvelous series that follows the adventures of George (a werewolf), Mitchell (a vampire) and Annie (a ghost) as they all share a flat in London . And as much as that sounds like the beginning of a shaggy-dog story (a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost walk into a bar…) the show is extremely well-written and directed, and the three actors involved (Russell Tovey, Aidan Turner, and Lenora Crichlow) are superb. The episodes run the gamut from darkly comic to horrific to deeply moving, using each character's supernatural traits as counterpoint to the humanity that still burns within them, and using dark allegory to comment on the foibles and trials of daily existence.

I saw the show intermittently last year, and for some reason it didn't grab my attention; perhaps because the vampire clan infighting was too similar to other genre staples such as the current TWILIGHT books and films, and the works of Anne Rice. But this season, focusing on the three and their attempts to integrate more fully into society, has me captivated.

The overall story arc this season is of an embittered pastor whose family was killed years before by vampires. He has organized a secret society to observe, capture, and rehabilitate or destroy supernatural creatures, while at the same time Mitchell is trying desperately to organize the vampire society into something resembling normalcy. Under this précis, the show has dealt with near-death experiences, addiction, self-help groups, vigilantism, religious persecution and obsession, and alienation. It's a splendid series, and I recommend it unreservedly.

But the one thing I find particularly fascinating about this show is that originally, it was not concerned with supernatural events!

The creator, Toby Whithouse (who cut his teeth on the fantastic in television by writing for DR. WHO ) was originally approached to do a simple drama, concerning three roommates in a London flat that each had psychological issues. The characters were a man suffering from sexual addiction, another with anger-management issues, and a third who was agoraphobic. After turning the various stories for these characters around in various meetings, Mr. Whithouse was dejected to discover that absolutely nothing of interest was forthcoming.

With time closing on the possibility of production, Mr. Whithouse made a startling proposal to his production staff: “What if the anger-management character was actually a werewolf?”

And suddenly everything fell into place. By taking modern day tribulations, and filtering them through a lens of the Dark Fantastic, Mr. Whithouse found he was able to tell a myriad of stories and fables about our society today, making them more immediate and thought-provoking than a tedious straight drama might allow.

Mr. Whithouse is by no means the first person to make the discovery that a little Horror can go a long way towards releasing the spark of creativity. Probably the most famous patron of the “Fantastic For Social Commentary School” would be Rod Serling, creator of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT GALLERY . The story has been told often enough; annoyed by the sponsors and network censors gutting his scripts of any important observations on our times, Mr. Serling was quoted as saying (of one particular political thriller), “I might as well have set it in the future, on Mars, and peopled the Senate with robots; I probably would have had a more adult, socially relevant script than what was eventually filmed.”

And the light bulb went off. Long a fan of Horror and Science Fiction, Mr. Serling discovered that by couching his arguments and observations in the comfortable terms of “simply fantasy”, he was able to take on issues of race relations, mob-violence, nuclear proliferation, capitalism gone mad, class warfare, civil rights, the futility of war, and the alienation of modern living, and turn them into powerful parables that echoed far longer (and aged far less) than any contemporary drama or comedy might.

But even more than his ability to examine any topical concerns, Mr. Serling's (and his fellow scenarists on TWILIGHT ZONE )  were able to use the tools of Horror and Dark Fantasy to raise the human condition to higher levels that made the edges cut deeper and the poignancy more universal. Because as advanced as our society has become, we still long for the romance of the world around us. (Romance, in this instance, being used to express wonder and mystery, not the sort of romance found in Harlequin Books.) And the counterpart in modern writing for romance literature can only be Horror, Dark Fantasy, and Science Fiction. (They also perform the equivalent of the medieval mystery plays, where common men interacted with angels, devils and other supernatural creatures.

In “Walking Distance” Mr. Serling touched on the desire to escape the daily rat race and return to a simpler time by telling the tale of a man who did indeed slip into the past…only to discover that he no longer belonged there. In “Eye Of The Beholder” , he examined our desire for conformity and took a hard look at what we consider beautiful, as a deformed woman has one last chance for a life-correcting surgery to make her “normal”; we watch in fascination as the bandages come off, and  the hospital lights come on.  The powerful images greeting the viewer are not likely forgotten, even if the once shocking “twist” ending is anticipated.

In his tale “The Fever” , Mr. Serling gives us a portrait of a man, quiet, mild-mannered (though easily irritated), who is forced to confront his inner demons when he is held in the thrall of a gambling addiction on a trip to La Vegas. Standing before the one-armed bandit, the man is engaged in a battle for his life with a sentient, vampiric creature, who literally calls his name when he tries to walk away, in a voice of coins rattling down a chute: “FFFRRRAAANNKKKLLLIIINNNN!!!” As the man succumbs to this monster, it spits his original silver dollar back at him contemptuously, and claims another victim.

Over 20 years later, when THE TWILIGHT ZONE was revived on CBS, the new producers took the same tact with a story called “The Hellgramite Method” . It told of an alcoholic trying to stop drinking, who is put under a radical treatment to curb his addiction: a Hellgramite worm is placed inside his body. It acts as a symbiotic parasite, and feed on alcohol. The man can drink as much as he wants, and he will never become intoxicated or impaired; he will no longer be a hazard to society. But the worm will continue to grow. He can put the worm into a form of hibernation, if he stops drinking completely, but the process is incredibly painful until the worm succumbs. If he drinks again, the worm will awaken…and he won't be able to stop drinking without causing his own agonizing death.

I can't think of a better metaphor for addiction than this horrifying little gem. What's it like to be an alcoholic? It's like having a thirsty creature literally living inside you, feeding off of you, and trying to put it to sleep is horrendously painful and difficult. And once asleep, the addict must remain on guard the rest of his life, for the creature sleeps very lightly, and is still very thirsty… Anyone who has ever pondered why someone has difficulty breaking their self-destructive habits can't help feeling sympathy for the gentleman involved, and think to themselves, There but for the grace of God…

Harlan Ellison calls this “the everyday experience raised to the mythical level by the application of fantasy to a potent cultural trope” , and he should certainly know; his career has been built on using the Dark Fantastic to comment on humanity's faults and failings, from “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” and “Knox” through “Crotoan” and “A Boy And His Dog” . And while he rejects the label of “Science Fiction Writer” or “Fantasy Author”, it is beyond argument that much of his work, especially his finest, is firmly in our genre. Like others before him, he uses the tropes and touchplates of Horror and Fantasy to make his points more firmly, indeed, labeling many of his stories as “fables”, with morals clear and stark.

Mr. Ellison uses his point of “everyday experience raised to the mythical level” in an essay to describe the early success of Stephen King with his novel CARRIE . The story of an adolescent, and outsider in the rigid caste community of a typical American high school, touches a chord with anyone who spent their teenage years lonely, awkward, not fitting into the norms and standards the world imposes. To quote Mr. Ellison further:

“…that opening sequence in which the telekinetic, Carrie White, gets her first menstrual experience before the eyes of a covey of teenage shrikes, and more than the light bulb in the locker room exploded. Xeroxes of the manuscript were run off; they were disseminated widely in-house; women editors passed them on to female secretaries, who took them home and gave them to their friends. That first scene bit hard…It was Jungian archetype goosed with ten million volts of emotional power. It was the commonly-shared horrible memory of half the population, reinterpreted.”

This is, of course, correct, and Mr. King has used the Horror Tale As Modern Morality Play more than a few times himself, with THE TOMMYKNOCKERS , THE STAND , STORM OF THE CENTURY , THE SHINING , and many others. Like Mr. Serling, Mr. King is often holding a dark distorted mirror up to humanity, forcing it to consider every angle of that reflection. ‘SALEM'S LOT isn't just a story about vampires; it's a rumination on the underbelly of the Norman Rockwell Our Town communities, where, beneath the veneer of Apple Pie, God and Country, Patriotism and Community, there is a dark current that sweeps away the weak and innocent; a current of abuse and neglect and corruption as terrible as any dark supernatural force.

Not limiting themselves to prose, the best creators in our field have long used the imaginary and the macabre for their own purposes. David Lynch's BLUE VELVET looks at the underside of American small town existence much like SALEM 'S LOT ; although his horrors are not supernatural, they are no less horrific. As a product of the turbulent 1960s, George Romero is well acquainted with the fracturing of society into smaller groups and counter-groups, all opposed to each other's values and looking to turn things topsy-turvy. His LIVING DEAD films reflect this admirably; as one emerging group literally wants to devour the other for control of the world we live in.

Guillermo Del Toro examines both children's fantasy and war-torn reality in PAN'S LABRYNTH , and asks, is either one more believable than the other? Kurt Vonnegut answers no with SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE ; there is no difference between the madness of warfare and the existence of aliens contacting us for the purpose of observation and experimentation. David Cronenburg goes further and declares that reality itself is no less fragile and metamorphic than the flesh that contains our being; each are corruptible, and each can betray us while we remain powerless.

The naysayers of our field of interest, those who disdain the Fantastic and have no time for “escapist” literature, fail again to grasp the obvious; through fable, we learn more about the human condition and the world than could be set down in straight, unfanciful terms. By observing reality through the prism of allegory and parable, we see life illuminated better than if we were to stare at it directly; morals are often their best when they are uncovered unwittingly. Mr. Serling knew this well; Mr. Ellison and Mr. King know it and practice it admirably, and Mr. Whithouse carries on the tradition honorably.

I encourage you to seek out BEING HUMAN , and consider the lessons referenced in the title by those who are desperately trying to live up to it. But be aware…viewing may be habit-forming, and there may just be a lesson learned before the end…

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

august
2010

 

Algis Budrys is a landmark name in the field of Speculative Fiction, or SF. He was an author of the first degree, with the classic stories “Rouge Moon” , “Who?” , “The End Of Summer” and “Nobody Bothers Gus” . He was equally at home in Fantasy, both light and dark, Horror, and Science Fiction; was an editor for Galaxy Science Fiction , Playboy , and Tomorrow Speculative Fiction , taught at the Clarion Writers Workshop, was one of the judges and editors for the “L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers Of The Future” series of anthologies, and, until his untimely death in 2008, was the book reviewer for The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction , where his lucid analytical insights and humorously imperturbable style is greatly missed.

(As an aside, Mr. Budrys, as do I, preferred the genus “Speculative Fiction” as opposed to “Science Fiction” because it allows incorporation of both Horror and Dark Fantasy into one category. After all, the lines of demarcation often blur – look at ALIEN and THE THING as prime examples; hopefully this opens the party and invited everyone without getting into ridiculously drawn out arguments…)

No less an authority than Harlan Ellison proclaimed Mr. Budrys one of the great writing teachers in this or any other field. “I'd write a story and send it to him and he'd do a heavyweight criticism of the attempt, and not once did he reply with a letter from which I failed to gain some sensible, workable data. Not silly literary theory, but hardcore writing information…I've saved those letters. They are some of the best teaching I ever had.” The number of writers taken under his wing are numerous (including a young Stephen King, to whom he gave his favorite professional advice concerning first and second drafting), and although Mr. Ellison himself had a falling out with the gentleman for a time, his opinion on Mr. Budrys craftsmanship and expertise in the field was left unshaken.

His novel “Who?” was made into an (in my opinion) unfairly underrated film starring Elliot Gould and Joseph Bova, and one of his short stories, “Master Of The Hounds” , became a terrific psychological thriller/Horror film TO KILL A CLOWN , featuring a great,  atypical performance from Alan Alda as a psychotic Vietnam veteran that terrorizes a couple renting his property.

In his essays for F&SF (which were far different from “book reviews” ), he would use a new volume to comment on trends and/or problems within the field of SF, and in the larger world of Literature itself. (In this manner he was very similar to Mr. Ellison's film reviews in the same magazine; indeed, I believe the best “critics” do not simply review a work at hand, but use to work to cast a different perspective on the world we all inhabit, and what the work and others like it means to that world at large. In this manner, Mr. Budrys and Mr. Ellison were at the top of their game.) His insights were sometimes more entertaining than the novels themselves, and, in my opinion, always on the money; I may not always have agreed with his conclusions, but his opinions and examinations were never less than thought-provoking. His voice was unique and original, and I miss hearing it, and am saddened by the silence.

I think what I found most gratifying about his critical gifts was that he, like Mr. King and countless others, truly loved this genre; he didn't simply pay lip service to it, he enjoyed its vast plain of possibilities, and reveled in both the serious drama and the burlesque. He enjoyed the comic silliness that accompanied the work, but didn't consider the works themselves silly. In fact, he believed that SF was as serious a field as any other “serious” or “mainstream” literature; he respected it, and expected it to live up to its potential as “serious” literature, in every sense of that phrase.

That alone was a breath of fresh air. How many people in our genre itself don't take it seriously? How many filmmakers and writers and other artists have produced half-finished and ill-thought efforts, artistic failures and morally bankrupt nihilism, and have excused it with, “it's not supposed to be serious ; it's just a Horror Movie , for crying out loud! It's just fun! ” (As if a work that stretches our imaginations and demands a higher concentration and response, from BLADE RUNNER to PANS LABRYNTH to THE TWILIGHT ZONE to 2001 to PSYCHO isn't “fun”! Yes, it was torture sitting through ROSEMARY'S BABY , THE BIRDS and REPULSION ; thank the gods I don't have to do that again!

Forgive my sarcasm…)

Where was I? Oh yes. Mr. Budrys took it very seriously, and asked…nay, demanded, that we do the same, even if we were having fun! And after listening to critics and literary snobs downplay the importance of fearful prose in literary work, to have minds with crippled imaginations refer to our choice of material as “junkfood”, “escapism”, juvenile” and “ infantile”, “trash”, and other far less polite pejoratives…well, it was always good to have Mr. Budrys championing our cause, if not the particular work in question.

Most of these belittling voices can be found in any big city periodical and publication, although the majority of the voices seem to congregate on the Northeastern seaboard of the United States . Read any review in The New York Times, The Washington Post, New Yorker, and other cosmopolitan offerings and they become apparent instantly, presuming that they even choose to explore our particular subject matter. Steven King relates his encounter with a reviewer from The New York Times Book Review , who stated, “I choose not to review Fantasy; I have no interest in the hallucinations of the mad.” (To which Mr. King replied, “It's always good to be in contact with such an open mind. It broadens one.” )

Which brings me to this particular quote, from an essay in the April 1987 issue of F&SF . (As is my want, I was perusing back issues of the magazine, catching up on Mr. Budrys opinions that I'd missed previously and reveling again at his insight. When I read the following introduction, I found it so startling in its premise that I had to share it with all of you.

Mr. Budrys writes:

"The idea that speculative fiction is a genre has hard sledging against the fact that its polar counterpart, descriptive or “Mainstream” fiction, is younger and contains many sub-categories itself. In fact, if we look at the history of the literary art, which began with attempts to dramatize the ways of the supernatural toward mankind, then descriptive fiction is an offshoot of speculative fiction – i.e., a genre.

And perhaps a compulsive denial of the supernatural, so staunch as to be an affirmation of its power; a testament to the terror loaded into any overt thought that apparent reality may be transient, and that correct rules of behavior may have become ineffectual at ay moment. That is, descriptive fiction may largely be an insane art, serving to lend a meretricious permanence to a self-circumscribed universe with perpetually tottering walls. Whereas SF comes to grips with the mystery, and is by that token more rational and more affirmative.

Perhaps this construct explains the reason for the often hysterical opposition to SF by some parents and by a literary “Establishment” which seems to be increasingly bizarre in its endorsements of what is properly literature, and increasing frayed in its intellectual raiment."

Take a moment or two to reread and review that. Let that roll around the recesses of your mind a while, and see if you don't find yourself smiling.

In a manner, Mr. Budrys argument is the same heard at every Science Fiction and Fantasy gathering where True Fans mutter about the “mundanes” in the world. There was an old saying quite popular some time ago: “Reality is a crutch for people who can't handle Science Fiction” , a nice turnabout on one of the chief criticisms of our field. And it's often a given among us that we are the special dreamers; we allow our imaginations to constantly question and as “What if?” We are the intellectuals and the artistic and the ones with higher learning, tastes and principles. (Although fans don't always behave this way; one visit to any large SF convention will make that sadly quite clear…and that is our own fault. But that's a subject for another time…)

But take a look again at what he's saying. He seems to find so-called “Mainstream” literature cowardly; unable to confront some ultimate truths that we take for granted: we are at the center of a mystery; we do understand there are many levels of reality, each one equally valid, we do know that there is more to Heaven and Earth than lies in your philosophy, Horatio.

And whereas there is definitely a gap between some of the more spiritual otherworldly believers that embrace Dark Fantasy and the rational, logical intelligences that lean towards Science Fiction, we can often agree to disagree, and believe that the minutiae of day-to-day living, while essential, fall far short of the be-all and end-all that the literal-minded and reality-bound declare it to be.

Once, some time ago, one of my human companions was debating the merits of two television series with a female acquaintance. The shows were THIRTYSOMETHING and BEAUTY & THE BEAST . She made the point that she preferred THIRTYSOMETHING because it was a better mirror of her day-to-day living. “My life is really like that, and so are my friend's.” My human companion understood that, but made the argument that, “I rather celebrate potential…honor, courage, compassion, self-sacrifice, and generally being better than we are...instead of just acknowledging what we are.”

Both are valid points. But I also prefer the second argument in my own desires and tastes. (Which is why I have so little patience with Horror films and stories that do no more that provide bloodshed and brutality, usually in the form of serial murders, extreme violence or gore, and the battering down of innocent victims, nine-out-of-ten-times of which are female. What are you trying to tell me? That the world is a horrible place? That there's no place to hide? That humanity is corrupt, and the body merely meat and tissue to be savaged? To paraphrase Neil Gaiman: “We already know that…” )

I believe there is a higher calling, and a higher sense of belief and mystery in the world around us. And although I can enjoy a realistic novel of everyday living, and find deep insights in the mainstream, I often prefer to go deeper to find other insights that are not part and parcel of the ordinary world.

If you're a regularly reader of these thoughts and ruminations, you know that I believe that our genre, that which we call Horror, can be a portal to exploring our lives and times in ways that no realistic work can; it can open doors of thought through allegory and fable that would not be breached in the mortal concerns of our times, and can rise proudly to take its place with any other serious literary endeavor. We number among our legion Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Joyce Carol Oates, John Collier, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Updike, William Goldman, Thomas Pynchon, Phillip Roth, C. S. Lewis, and Edgar Allen Poe among many others that found the freedom of our field and the opportunities for speculation and parable too great to ignore. Some touched upon our shores on or twice; others found riches and returned repeatedly, but all recognized that SF was a tool to be exercised with the same care and respect as any of their other works.

We often fall short of what we are capable of. (One more sequel or remake may seriously drive me into drink.) But our failures are not all that we are. We are dreamers, dark and light, and we present them to a world for inspection and regard, to open the wonder that many of us feel every day.

I believe we have nothing to be ashamed of. And neither did Algis Budrys.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JULY
2010

 

I'm a bit annoyed with some of you; yes I am.

One of the things that has always been trumpeted proudly about our field of interest (and I'm including Science Fiction and Fantasy as well as Horror in this discussion) is our open-mindedness and willingness to explore other visions and realities than our own. Our imaginations are often encouraged to stretch beyond those of the so-called “mundane” that inhabit the mainstream world. We create special events and opportunities strictly for the fandom; conventions and film festivals and other gatherings where we met those with similar interests in the unusual and extraordinary, and celebrate our unconventionality.

We do this for a number of reasons; social intercourse, networking for our own projects and artistic endeavors, or simply to congregate in a welcoming atmosphere. I believe that the final reason may be one of the most important. Certainly our choice of genre is often looked at in askance by mainstream tastes and critics. Often our interests are dismissed as “childish” or “escapist” ; so-called “junk” literature. (Although I'm often amused by the “escapist” label; as Isaac Asimov once pointed out, many science fiction futures are concerned with totalitarian or dysfunctional societies, or with disturbing social trends postulated to their logical extremes, such as overpopulation, nuclear warfare, economic collapse, and the like. How these dismal settings can be called “escapist” was beyond him, and I agree; I find it difficult to imagine how the most jaded of mainstream cynics can believe an apocalyptic world of flesh eating Undead can be a relaxing way to kill an hour or two…)

Many, if not all of us have experienced the raised eyebrow, the impatient sigh, or the superior smirk when we're told how we enjoyed a recent book or novel in the SF or Horror field. We're condescended to, asking when our tastes will “grow up” or become interested in “serious” literature or film; we're looked at in distrust and dismay, friends asking “how we can like that Horror stuff when there's so much real misery in the world”. You all know the drill, I'm certain; no amount of argument can convince them that we enjoy a worthy art form. It seems unfair that connoisseurs of, say, the Western genre, or the Mystery or Thriller, never seem to have to defend themselves so readily. These days I find myself shaking my head and quoting Mr. Louis Armstrong who, when asked to explain jazz music, said simply, “If you don't understand it, then I can't explain it to you.”

So it causes me great consternation when I read or hear of recent attacks against fans of the genre coming, not from outside our family, but from each other!

The latest instance that has inspired my small diatribe is the current disdain and smarmy comments directed at the TWILIGHT franchise; rhetoric that has stepped up with the release of the latest film ECLIPSE . But these thoughts have been on my mind for some time, hearing fans arguing about the merits of other points in the field, and it seems as though, in keeping with society today, what was once healthy debate and good-natured arguments have degenerated to name-calling, insults and absolute intolerance for the other person's point of view. And, if I may be so bold, as a time-honored practitioner and vocal defender of this beloved subset of literature, I want to sincerely address all the friction and fractions herein and said from my heart: knock it off, will ya'!!

I will be the first to admit that the charms of the TWILIGHT universe escape me. First of all, I am an adult, and the angst and worldviews of a group of teenagers, otherworldly or otherwise, doesn't completely appeal to me. Secondly, the rules of the world as written don't make a great deal of sense to me; I can't for the life of me understand why a 100-year-old vampire would choose a teenage girl as his heart's desire, no matter how old of a soul she may be. I mean, what do they talk about, when they're not gazing mournfully into each other's eyes? (This is a theme that I thought Anne Rice explored very well in “Interview With A Vampire” .) That, and the fact that the apparent audience being targeted is teen and pre-teen ladies, of whom I am not one, lead me to pass on exploring these particular books and films. (I'm also told that the actual prose is somewhat torturous, but as I have not read them myself, I can't comment on that; but these rumors did have the effect of keeping my interest abated.)

And no, I don't believe vampires sparkle, at least not in my experience, my dear Miss Scarlett aside. I'm much more comfortable with the classic bloodsuckers such as NOSFERATU , DRACULA , and the citizens of Mr. King's SALEM 'S LOT . And because the genre is so large, and can incorporate so many viewpoints, I would likely as not pass this off as “let's agree to disagree” , and be done with it.

But that doesn't seem to be happening. Battle lines are definitely being drawn; editorials and blogs are bleating fiercely about what makes a “true” vampire fan, or a “true” Horror fan: those in one camp are determined to crush the opinions and spirits of those in the opposing, no matter which side of the debate you're on.

This is not a good thing. The world today is remarkably divisive, perhaps more so than any other time in recent memory. Everything, from politics to social reform to arts and entertainment has been reduced to simple contests of strengths, like a game of football, and there must be definite winners and losers. Compromise and seeing the other person's side has become a sign of weakness and folly, and, as in that age-old proverb, it isn't enough that we should triumph as that our enemies should fail.

This is fed constantly by the media and the pundits that work it today. You cannot straddle a fence; you must make a decision and take sides, and that side must be the correct side. We're divided up and played against each other like combatants in a Roman arena, all in the name of ratings or newspapers sales. Our country is even divided into “Red” states and “Blue” states, and heaven help you if your ideology doesn't match with the location you're slotted into.

Now I suppose all this is well and good in the mainstream world; after all, these are the “mundane” (a phrase I despise) and they scurry about trying to make their way through the world as best they can. Why they allow it, I cannot say. But we're supposed to be better than that; we're supposed to be the dreamers and the tolerant and the secret society where we can turn to escape the judgmentalism of the world around us. And as author and critic Harlan Ellison has often noted, the practices of our society don't always match up with our goals. There is a strong conservative streak in fandom that can be as intolerant and abusive as any racist organization during the 1960s civil rights struggle.

And it's simply silly. Kevin Smith, filmmaker and comic fan, gave a now legendary speech at a Comic Con event, and, when confronted with the negative reaction to the TWILIGHT series, said, “That's what I love about a comic book convention. People will come to a convention, stand there in a …Spock costume, and look at somebody in a (Chewbacca) costume, and say, ‘Look at that…geek'!” And he's absolutely right; where do people in Renaissance garb, devil horns, ice-white contacts and Steampunk jewelry have the right and audacity to criticize somebody in a black trenchcoat and pointed teeth?

Time ago…quite a long time ago, when I was still performing with my Patient Creatures at Six Flags America outside Washington DC for Halloween, we would have patrons that would come dressed to the hilt to celebrate the October Season. Many of them would create their own outfits, and we were constantly amazed at the range of the artistry and imagination shown. But every so often someone would come to the park in an obviously store-bought outfit; some were quite handsome, but they didn't quite have the charm and skill of the handmade ensembles.

For some reason this would annoy my Cousin Grim excessively, and he would often rail about those who would arrive in their purchased attire.  “It's not in the spirit of the Season!” he'd complain bitterly. I thought this was a bit unfair, and told him so. “But Cousin,” I said, “they want very much to take part in the celebration. Perhaps this is the best they can do. Should we exclude them simply because they aren't as talented or as resourceful as others? I think we should invite them to the party, and help them grow. Perhaps next time they'll attempt something original because they were so inspired by our celebration.” Grim saw the logic in this, and acquiesced, although he would still mutter under his breath occasionally. (That was simply how he was; to know him is to love him…)

Shouldn't we extend that same courtesy to these newcomers? Simply because they're infatuated with a style of Dark Fantasy that we don't find particularly worthwhile, shouldn't we do our best to welcome them in and perhaps expand their horizons? The genre is so huge, so vast in its varieties that it can encompass everything from bloody Shakespearian drama to phantasmagorical Swiftian whimsy and satire; everything from HALLOWEEN to PAN'S LABRYNTH to MARTYRS to THE OLD DARK HOUSE to SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES . Surely we can accept a sparkling vampire or two into the mix.

This intolerance isn't simply directed at the TWILIGHT brigade. I shudder to think how many times in recent years I've logged onto certain websites and blogs and been confronted with an argument for (or against) a particularly fierce or bloody work of cinema, to which the final argument was put: “If you can't appreciate something like this, go back to your PG movies and television. This is for Real Horror Fans!

Really? Real Horror Fans? Because I can't enjoy or appreciate a film that sole person seems to be the humiliation, torture and disembowelment of nude young women, I'm not a Real Horror Fan ? Because I rail against needless remakes or reimaginings that novice filmmakers throw onto the silver screen while ignore any attempts at original thought or storytelling I'm not a Real Follower of the Dark Fantastic? Because I would prefer to lose myself in a black and white Universal classic rather than subject myself to a 10,000 decibel 3D evisceration extravaganza I'm don't like Real Horror ? (Or, let's play Devil's Advocate and reverse it: is someone less of a fan because he doesn't like the Universal films and would prefer to spend his evenings with Misters Krueger, Voorhees and Myers, is he less of a fan? I have my suspicions, but what do I know?)

My bookshelves are stocked with everything from Poe and Bierce and Lovecraft to King and Bradbury and Barker to Matheson and  Serling and Collier to Bloch and  Gorey and Stoker. My film collection includes THE NIGHT STALKER, FRANKENSTEIN, ROSEMARY'S BABY, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DEMEMTIA 13, INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, STRAW DOGS, HORROR OF DRACULA, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and others too numerous to mention. No, I won't step aside for that argument, and I wouldn't dare toss it casually at anyone else whose sensibilities I might disagree with.

The world at large divides people into easy categories so that they may be labeled and marketed to, they set them upon each other to distract them from larger issues and for the entertainment of the masses who have nothing better to do than slow down for automobile accidents and street fights. By what madness would we agree to do that to ourselves, to willing allow others to keep us in conflict?

Don't get me wrong: good, vivid debate is very healthy for any community, and artistic standards are always subject to examination, certainly. I personally despise the so-called “torture porn” and “extreme” films that substitutes sadism for style and story; I lose my patience with studio executives trying to second guess success by dusting off a semi-familiar title in the sole hopes, not of artistic expression, but financial gain. I dislike our genre dumbed down and commercialized like so many sneakers or frozen dinners, put together by committee and prepackaged, bland as unseasoned tofu, and sent into the world not to expand our worldview and stimulate our senses but to make it through the first weekend in enough profit so that no one loses their position at Paramount and the sequel can be storyboarded for consumption next year. This is what should be discussed, in as many loud voices and as often as possible.

But what's happening now is not artistic debate; it's character assassination. It's US against THEM , with THEM being whatever and whomever you point at. And if it seems silly to spend this much time talking about movies, I recently came across a Facebook discussion that went from how stupid the TWILIGHT movie series is to a discussion about people who choose to live their lifestyles as “actual” vampires, in an extreme of the Goth tradition. And the discussion quickly degenerated to those who live as self-described “werewolves” , going so far as to wear tails with their everyday clothing. And how weird they were. What losers! How stupid! They need to get a life or something!

And that , my Friends, is where the slippery slope begins, and many a better man than I has tumbled down it and fallen flat onto his face before he knew what was happening.

And I think of Mr. Smith's comments at the Comic Con, and how he used very pointed humor to expose a certain truth; we all must hold the mirror up to ourselves before we begin trying to judge another's reflection.

Several years ago, the GOOSEBUMPS series of books were the rage with my young companions. It seems as though Mr. R. L. Stine would turn out another one every month (two if he skipped breakfast one day), and the shelves were filled with short books with covers showing demonic clowns, killer snowman, possessed puppets, scaled swamp denizens, and the like. They were devoured as soon as they were published, snatched up by eager young hands, and Mr. Stine became a great success.

I was suspicious of these books; I didn't think anything turned out so quickly could have any lasting quality. And I believe I was correct. Unlike the TWILIGHT books, I did read several of the GOOSEBUMPS series, and was dismayed at what I saw: anemic retreads of popular horror films and archetypes; paper-thin characterization; plots that read more like script outlines; dialogue to heavy and leaden that you could blacksmith a set of andirons on it. I thought they (the ones I read, at least) were abysmal, and was greatly troubled that, for many of my young friends, this would be their first taste of Dark Fantasy and Horror. (I was not persuaded by the argument that they were so simple because “they're for kids” ; not when Roald Dahl and Madeline L'Engle could turn out young people's literature that was textured and poetic and magical and literate. There were far better ways to introduce young people to the wonders our genre offered.) And I went on at length about how displeased I was with the books.

But something odd began to happen. Others I admired had some semi-kind things to say about them; people as critical of the field as Stephen King and Harlan Ellison, when asked about GOOSEBUMPS, replied grudgingly, “Well, at least they're getting kids to read!” It was so true I was forced to reevaluate my position. The books, simple and comforting with soft-centered scares and main characters that youngsters could identify with, were setting children's imaginations ablaze with possibilities, and allowing them to safely confront some of their mortal dreads in the same manner Mr. Romero and Mr. Cronenburg did for adults. They were sitting down at the banquet and eating; nibbling tentatively, but eating nonetheless, and finding the entrees delicious!

I've seen firsthand now how my young companions react to the books; I've seen them staring wide-eyed as a teacher or other adult reads passages to them, giddy with excitement and fear that the thing under the bed might be able to catch the hero this time after all, were the youngster not so resourceful. I've heard them talking with excitement about what they just heard, and how scary it would be if that happened in person. And I've seen them snatch up the next book and begin reading in fearful anticipation…

So although I still believe I'm correct in my assessment of their literary value, I believe I was much too hard on Mr. Stine and his creations, and have vowed to be far more tolerant in the future. And when it's time for them to graduate to older fair, I intend to take my young friends by the hand and, with their taste for fear already developing, lead them to a volume of “The Monkey's Paw” and “The Body Snatcher” and “The Signalman” and “The Judge's House” and “The Cocoon” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” and hand it to them, telling them, “Here. If you liked GOOSEBUMPS , you may truly enjoy this!”

Which I think is the most we can do for our TWILIGHT friends. There is a whole world of vampiric creations that may strike their fancy: SOME OF YOUR BLOOD, SUNGLASSES AFTER DARK, NEAR DARK, CRONOS, THE VAMPIRE LESTAT, and many others. (As I suggested last month, we might also do likewise with our brethren who believe the Zombie is the be-all and end-all of Horror…) But we can't do this by degrading them, or chastising them. Honey does attract far more flies than vinegar. (So does a rotting corpse, but again that's a discussion for another time…)

Let us by all means have hard, vivid debate; let us argue the worth of Rob Zombie as a filmmaker, or whether the new NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET does justice to its predecessor, on if Mr. Romero has lost it with his latest film or is just going through h a dry spell, on why Japanese Horror seems to be fading. Let us argue and insult and twist arms and raise our voices and bang on tabletops… but …once we're finished, let us take a long drink of the beverage of our choice, smile across the table and say, “That was fun! It was nice talking to you!”

And let us mean it.

There are enough forces out there trying to divide us. Why give them ammunition? To quote a wise man in the bewildering glare of the media and a hostile world, let us continue to ask ourselves: “Can't we all just get along?”

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JUNE
2010

 

Of late, my thoughts have centered on forgiveness…

There are many, people opposed to the genre in general, and in most cases the films produced, that ask repeatedly, often with a bewildered sneer, “How can you enjoy something that's so horrible? That's so dark? Isn't there enough real misery in the world?”

Well, the answer in short is yes, there certainly is enough real misery in the world. And I could make the case, as I have in the past on this site, about the need for catharsis; that much of horror reflects what Stephen King calls the pressure points of fear in each generation, and reading or watching horror enables people to have a better grasp on what keeps them awake and staring at the ceiling at night. During the 1950s the atom bomb released more oversized mutants, insects, and other creatures than you could shake a howitzer at. (Take a look, if you will, at the original Godzilla film with Raymond Burr, and notice how the scenes in the hospital feature burned, mummy-bandaged survivors of the initial attack on Tokyo , and understand how the Japanese people were still dealing with the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki .)

And it is certainly no coincidence to me that one of the most memorable scenes in the classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD features National Guardsman indiscriminately firing at the shambling Undead around them that at one time were their friends and neighbors. More than one critic has pointed out the uncomfortable parallels with newsreel footage of young soldiers in Vietnam at he time; images broadcast nightly on the six o'clock news.

So yes, there is catharsis. But I won't speak of that here. Rather, I'll touch again on the point that many critics miss; that Horror is not a wallowing in darkness, but actually a celebration of light, conceived as counterpoint to the horrible events that occurred earlier in the story or film. Put quite simple, I would hazard to guess that more than 85% of Horror films have a happy ending; the hero or heroine makes their way through the darkness, the evil is overcome, and dawn breaks over the horizon, chasing the shadows away (sometimes literally, in the case of many vampire epics). I believe that this percentage is higher than many mainstream dramas that are offered to the public.

(Side note here: yes, I understand that there is a wearying trend to have some final JUMP at the end of many horror films. I find this annoying in many cases, not the least of which because it has become a terrible cliché, to the point that it was often mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000. There would be a slow pan in on a supposedly dead body, and the robots would chant, “Annnndddd…the eyes open up. And the eyes open up. And the eyes open up…” William Goldman, one of the premiere screenwriters of our time, once noted, “Endings are hard .” No argument there; many films, Horror and otherwise, have dissatisfying conclusions, so much so that we tend to jump to our feet and applaud the occasional correct ending.

And I understand that some films need a somber or nihilistic ending; witness the aforementioned NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD , as a prime example. But the jump ending and last bit of horror has become such a dead, beaten horse, that it's no longer a surprise; rather, it's almost a shock now when it doesn't occur! Mr. Romero himself understood this, and both his versions of DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD forsake the downbeat ending and have some survivors actually escape the carnage and live to see another day…)

Still, for much of Horror fiction and film, there is a moment that, if not entirely happy, indicates that the darkness has passed, and a semblance of normality has been restored. Author John Skipp, in his marvelous essay in THE BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR edition, refers to these moments as “Face Of God” moments; they can occur anywhere in a narrative, but most often are found at the conclusion.

(I should warn you that I am about to reveal a huge amount of possible spoilers; please read ahead very carefully if you are only a casual peruser of our field.)

In the film from the television series TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME , the murdered Laura Palmer sits with FBI Agent Dale Cooper in a red-curtained dreamscape, and an angel, shining with white light, hovers over their heads.

After the blood and thunder of THE EXORCIST draws to a close, a reborn Linda Blair turns before getting into the car carrying her away from her old home, and hugs the priest sent to investigate Father Karras's death.

After Rosemary has seen the results of her birth in ROSEMARY'S BABY , she looks down at her child with motherly love, and accepting him, begins to softly sing a lullaby.

Has anyone sat through BLADE RUNNER and not been left open-mouthed and teary-eyed at Roy Batty's final monologue: I've seen things you people wouldn't believe …”

In George Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD , the hero climbs up the missile silo, literally leaving the carnage in the underworld depths below and reaching up towards the light, in as powerful an analogy as I can conceive.

Of course, it isn't only in film that these moments occur. The conclusion of Bram Stoker's DRACULA finds Dr. Van Helsing sitting with Mina and Jonathan Harker, holding their child on his knee, a boy named after their friend Quincy Morris, who perished in the final confrontation with the vampire king.

In Peter Straub's GHOST STORY , Don Wanderley destroys the demonic force that had been tormenting his family and those in the town of Milburn , NY. As he does, e feels the sun rising, and the light radiating from him in triumph. He steps from his ruined car onto the beach, washing the sun rise over the ocean, and feels love everywhere, for himself and his fallen companions.

Stephen King, for all the darkness his name portends to the public, is quite big on emerging from the dark tunnel into the light in many of his novels and short stories, not the least of which include THE STAND , with the birth of Stu and Fran's baby; in FIRESTARTER , as young Charlie McGee walks into the offices of Rolling Stone magazine to tell her extraordinary tale and reveal the government's cover-up; in FROM A BUICK EIGHT as the son of a police officer obsessed with an alien artifact becomes an officer himself, and the artifact shaped like an old Buick slowly begins to crack and wear away, quite notably in his non-horror RITA HAYWORTH & THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION , where a condemned prisoner patiently waits thirty years, buoyed only by his own knowledge of his innocence, to make his escape from Shawshank Penitentiary, and most notably in THE DEAD ZONE , where the conclusion originally looks like a tragic ending…until all the facts are known and the final reveal takes place. But Johnny Smith knows the truth long before the reader does, and dies with a satisfied smile on his face.

All of these examples illustrate my contention; that Horror and Dark Fantasy are celebrations of light, overcoming the darkness in conflict and using catharsis for a final transcendence (a marvelous word). And that's a very optimistic form of artistic expression.

But what of forgiveness? That's something a bit different. Many of the examples above reach their transcendence after a final battle, sometimes epic in proportions, with evil thoroughly defeated. But the transcendence of forgiveness, of letting the darkness live with its own conscience, of leaving the anger and hatred behind and releasing it…that's an even rarer occurrence, and admittedly, much more difficult to write. But it is done, and never more effectively than in the genre we love. And when it occurs, the effect can be electric…

In Mary Shelly's FRANKENSTEIN , the novel concludes with Victor Frankenstein, lying in a berth on the Antarctic explorer ship, dying. His creation enters the room and delivers an anguished forgiveness for the tragedy that had befallen them, then, as Frankenstein breathes his last, the Monster abandons the ship, and sails off on an ice flow into the stark grey twilight.

After rescuing the boys Will and Jim from Dark's Pandemonium Carnival in Ray Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES , Mr. Dark makes one last attempt to trick Charles Halloway into his clutches by appearing as a small, frightened boy. But Halloway sees through Dark's disguise, and, rather than attempting to destroy Dark, takes him into his arms and offers love. Dark cannot face this, and perishes.

When young Meg returns to the planet Camazotz in Madeleine L'Engle's A WRINKLE IN TIME to rescue her brother, whose soul has been taken by the planet's ruler It , meg is told she has a power greater than anything It possesses. She discovers that power is love, and although she can't love It , she can love her brother, and brings him back from the darkness.

When the creatures in Colin Wilson's THE SPACE VAMPIRES are found by members of their own alien race, they are put on trial for their crimes of feeding on humanity as the source of vampire myths. When the realization of what they have done reaches them, they choose to commit suicide rather than return to their home planet, so great is their despair for their actions.

At the conclusion of the original theatrical release of JACOB'S LADDER , Jacob Singer, unaware yet that he is dead, returns to his old apartment he shared with his family. The doorman smiles at him, “Welcome home, Dr. Singer” (And how often have we referred to those who have passed on as having been “called home” ?) he rest on the couch, then hears a sound on the stairs. It's his dead son playing. They embrace, then climb the long stairway into a brilliant white light. The guilt and grief he's felt for his son's loss evaporates, and Jacob can go to meet his own demise.

(Interestingly, when the film was recut, there was a final battle inserted between Jacob and a demonic force, a battle cut from the original release. I can only assume it was restored because the studio demanded ACTION! The film actually worked much better with the quiet ending minus the fireworks.)

Perhaps the author who works in the realm of forgiveness best, in my experience, is Neil Gaiman. In many of his SANDMAN tales, as well as his other novels, evil is not overcome by thunder and warfare, but by a quiet understanding and coming to terms with what has gone on before. A madman who controls the world releases all types of night horrors on an unsleeping earth; when the Dream King arrives to stop him, he takes the madman home, and sends the world into a deep, dreamless sleep to heal. A child molester and murderer is confronted by his victims in never-ending dream; they forgive him and invite him to play with them in innocence. Lucifer, when confronted in Hell by the Dream King, cuts his own wings off and abdicates his throne rather than battle to defend it. (“I thought we were going to fight,” Morpheus says plaintively.) The tale ends with the Devil sitting on a beach, thanking God for his sunsets, which are “bloody marvelous”. In the novel STARDUST , an evil witch, who has killed many and wants to possess the soul of a living star to retain her beauty, comes finally before her prey as a withered husk of her formal self, and the star sends her home with a kiss and pity.

No other author does this as well, in my opinion; Mr.Gaiman is a master, and wrings every last bit of character pathos from each situation. No villain, from Darth Vader to MacBeth, is truly villainous in his own eyes, and Mr. Gaiman forces us to see the person behind the evil deeds; flawed, frightened, and failing, a straw man most often blow apart in the winds of truth and kindness and justice.

Perhaps at a time in humanity, when men are pitted against each other politically, culturally, in race and creed and core values, we would do well to take these lessons from our genre and see beyond the sound bites and posturing and polarizing that so often accompanies heated debate. When difficulty arises maintaining friendships, communicating honestly with loved ones, honoring and respecting those who wound or reject us, we would do well to remember the humanity behind the conflict, and that a soft word turns away anger and resentment.

It's not easy, by any means; just as it's easier to write a narrative where good conquers evil in a flash of sound and fury. But it is often more rewarding, even if you may feel the other hasn't earned forgiveness. In its purest form, it isn't always for those doing the wronging; often it's for the wronged as well.

There is a marvelous book named THE SHACK , written by William P. Young. It is a religious fable, a parable, concerning a man whose child has been murdered, who encounters God at an isolated shack in the mountains. Even though I believe much of the book is awkwardly written, I find many of the ideas thought-provoking. (For those without a particular religious bent, I urge you to consider it in the same vein as “The Screwtape Letters” and some of Vonnegut's work.) Towards the conclusion of the novel, God urges the man to try to forgive the murderer of his daughter. Naturally, the man rebels; he can't ever forget what the man did to his daughter. God tells him, “Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person's throat...”

I think that sums everything up. We forgive for ourselves as for anyone else. It releases; I do believe I'm discussing catharsis again. It's a way to grow, and an alternate path to follow. And it's ironically often best offered to those who do not always deserve it.

It may sound like we're wandering far afield from Horror literature and drama, but if the genre is truly a celebration of light instead of darkness, then it's also alternate path that we choose to explore in our own lives. May your paths be as enlightening.

“Bless the daytime,
Bless the night;
Bless the sun which gives us light;
Bless the thunder,
Bless the rain;
Bless all those who cause us pain…

Bless the free man,
Bless the slave;
Bless the hero in his grave;
Bless the soldier,
Bless the saint;
Bless all those whose hearts grow faint…”
 

-Dave Cousins of The Strawbs; Benedictus

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

MAY
2010

 

Some rumination on the past several months…


* * * * * * *


It's been quite some time since I've written. How have things been? More importantly, what kind of a year has it been? 

It's astonishing; it has been close to a full year since I put thought to paper, in a symbolic way, here in my Crypt. So much has happened in that time; some good, some that could have been better, and some not terribly pleasant at all.

My human companion Bob went through some difficult times; he has been separated from someone he cares about very much. In addition, he has lost some people that he was very close to during the year, including someone he considered a mentor. (My Cousin's movements across the earth are intractable.) Still, as always, we move on, and do the best we can.

For myself, I have been able to journey again, visiting some places that have meant a great deal to me in the past (such as NetherWorld in Atlanta ), reacquainting myself with past companions and welcoming new ones. On a somber note, I too have lost some friends and fellow travelers, including one of my original Patient Creatures. That was a sad time, and as notable for the passing of an era as any other I can imagine.

On the whole, the year contained much sorrow and much joy, sometimes in equal measure, sometimes with one overcasting the other. I've parted company with an organization that I've been involved with for several years, although I am still friendly with many current members. There were hundreds of people that took part in the benefit concert for Dr. Creep last July, filling a park with love and adoration; yet that gentle and good man is still dogged by ill health. I've lost some venues for performing, and have been welcomed into others. I've learned new tales, and forgotten others, until reminded.

The world goes on in much the same way: there are still wars being fought in far-off lands; we are closer than we've appeared before to a cure for cancer, yet the disease continues to take friends and loved ones. There is political anger in the nation, but no clear target to direct it against.

In our genre, there are still needless remakes of films trying to capitalize on past successes, each one seemingly more dismal than the last, while courageous independent voices and artists are relegated to cable television and direct-release DVDs. Stephen King is still writing, despite his previous threats of retirement, and his son Joe Hill looks to be making a strong name in the field himself. The HorrorHound convention during the fall in Indiana boasted the largest collection of HorrorHosts ever assembled in one location, usurping the past record held at Cinema Wasteland (in which *ahem* I took part); yet many of these hosts are laboring with love on public access and the Internet, because broadcast television has no space for them, choosing to fill their hours of programming with infomercials.

What kind of year has it been? I would hazard to guess that it has been pretty much a year like any other; the best of times, the worst of times, as Mr. Dickens put it so eloquently. This is not to minimize the pain and loss experienced by those who've known sorrow; it's merely to note that, as is most often the case, the pain will pass, and life will get better. And once it has, it will get worse again. (A very Irish way of looking at the world…) And the cycle will continue unabated until…when? Until it is finished, of course.

It seems to me that journeys are an apt metaphor for existence itself; life (or afterlife, and whatever is beyond that) is a constant moving forward; looking back only slows down the venture and obscures the vision of what may be ahead. This doesn't mean we shouldn't treasure the past; indeed, memory is a wonderful device for recalling some of our best experiences. But dwelling on them too much is folly; we cannot return to the past, and on those very rare occasions that we do, we should recognize it as the blessing it truly is.

A wonderful song by the Scottish songwriter Dougie MacLean puts it succinctly:

“Now I have moved and I've kept on moving;
Proved the points that I needed proving;
Lost the friends that I needed losing,
Found others on the way…
I have kissed the ladies and left them crying;
Stolen dreams, yes there's no denying
I have traveled hard with coattails flying
Somewhere in the wind…”


What kind of year has it been? A 365-day one, with another one waiting to begin…

* * * * * * *


What kind of a year has it been? It's been a year that's seen an old nemesis raise his ugly head yet again.

Jack Chick Publications produces comic book material featuring Christian Fundamentalist propaganda. I know those are emotionally loaded words; however, one look at Mr. Chick's website and the material therein, and I would defy anyone to come up with a more accurate description. The tracts published are filled with Hell-fire, intolerance, bigotry, anti-science sentiment and a disdain for anyone who doesn't toe the line set forth by his very narrow world view.

I offer no apologies. Anyone who has met me or followed my scribblings here from my Crypt know that I'm loathe to disparage anybody's belief systems or values. I try and stay far from the political, simply because much of the debate doesn't really concern those of us that straddle the plains of existence.

But Mr. Chick brought the battle onto my terrain, as it were, with his continual denigration of the October Season, spouting the old myths that Halloween is a satanic holiday celebrated by heathens, Pagans, and blasphemous malcontents, and that anyone with a bent towards the macabre is earning themselves a ticket straight to damnation. (Which should come as a surprise to the many genuine heathens and Pagans that I know…)

Year after year Mr. Chick has published special Halloween tracts filled with bile and brimstone, aimed directly at those who might, shall we say, disagree with his interpretation of facts. The most unsettling and vile one, in my humble opinion, is one titled “The Haunted House”. In it, Timmy and his friends visit a haunted house on Halloween; Timmy becomes so scared that he runs from the house into the street, and is promptly hit by a car and killed. While his friends mourn his passing, one boy's mother tells him that Timmy is doomed to Hell because he wasn't saved, and is now in eternal torment.

Isn't that a lovely message to send to those who may have lost loved ones during holidays? “I'm sorry your daughter died; since she didn't worship the correct way, she's burning in Hell. Merry Christmas!” I think it was this appalling insensitivity that raised my ire as much as anything.

(And let me state again that I will not disparage anybody else's beliefs. If you honestly think Halloween is a satanic romp, please don't celebrate it. If you think it violates your personal religious or moral tenets, by all means stay at home, and bless you. But don't cast a pall over those who may think differently, and for pity's sake don't condemn a soul to eternal torment without considering every possibilities, including the feelings of the families.

And while I am not an expert on religious matters, I think I can speak assuredly on two points: one, when God chooses to judge a soul, it will be His judgment alone, and His to bestow mercy and grace on the worst, if He so decides. And two, He will likely not consult Mr. Chick or anyone else on the wisdom of that decision…)

Last year I was heartened that the Halloween tract called “The Little Ghost” was far gentler than other years, giving me to hope that perhaps we can all just get along, agree to disagree, and find room to compromise. Alas, I fear that hope was short lived. (And please pardon my not providing a link to these tracts; I don't intend to give this gentleman more attention that necessary.It can be found easily enough on Google, if your curiosity is morbid enough.)

In March, a church in Tennessee caught flak for distributing an anti-Catholic tract called “The Death Cookie”. (Fascinating title, yes? Another of Mr. Chick's favorite themes is that the Catholic Church is not a true religion; that it has a satanic foundation, and is turning souls towards damnation. Mr. Chick speaks a lot about damnation; oddly, “love your neighbor as yourself” is rarely mentioned…) The tract had made its way into the local high school to be handed out, and needless to say, the town's Catholics were none too pleased to find themselves depicted as being enslaved to a false religion.(Now who could have foreseen that happening?)

The pastor of the local Baptist Church , who was distributing the tract, issued an apology to the Catholics in the community. “Looking back, I don't think it was the right tract to give out. I have some others that wouldn't have been as offensive.”

Ahhhhh, humanity; you fascinate me. Sometimes you rise on angel's wings to accomplish the impossible; you demand that your reach exceed your grasp; you climb ladders, reach down and pull them up behind you, and keep climbing. What a piece of work is Man; how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty; in form and moving how express and admirable. Sometimes in crisis and desperation, when things are at their worst, you are truly made in His image, and at your best.

And other times you are dumber than sackfulls of hammers.

Now, to be absolutely fair, that was an older tract, from 1988. But the October celebration is coming, and the concern is what will greet us this year? Will it offer compromise, or condemnation. Right now, we cannot tell for certain.

But we will be watching closely, won't we? Yes we will…

* * * * * * *


 What kind of a year has it been? Obviously, it's been a year of zombies and vampires. And I'm puzzled…

Look, I don't want to boast, but I am intimately acquainted with the genre I labor in. And I am well aware of the iconic status of both these archetypes. And you'll get no disagreement from me there; it's a status well-earned.  You'll find no larger fan of the vampire in literature ( Dracula , ‘Salem's Lot and Interview With A Vampire occupy honored positions on my bookshelf, although my affection for Ms. Rice's work did not engage me to seek out its various sequels) and film (among my personal classics are Nosferatu , Mr. Lee's Horror Of Dracula , the adaptations of ‘Salem's Lot and Interview , Near Dark and of course Mr. Lugosi's turn as the vampire king…). And I step to the back of the bus for no one in my admiration for the work of Mr. Romero, whose seminal work includes the famous trilogy that earned him acclaim, as well as the follow-ups that display his craft ( Survival Of The Dead is currently in theaters).

No, I cannot argue with the popularity of these works, or their place in Horror history. Rather, looking at what is emerging from Hollywood , the independent cinema and Publisher's Row, is the nagging refrain from that old Peggy Lee tune: “Is that all there is…?”

Look in any newspaper listing, turn to any genre magazine, and it seems that the only subjects fit for pen or celluloid are these two denizens of the darkness. I mean, really! In the past year we've had The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology , Bite Me , American Zombie Gothic , The Waking , Zombies Of Mass Destruction , Bite: A Vampire's Handbook , Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer (which was actually really good), Dead Snow , Dead Girl , Edges Of Darkness , Zombie Strippers , The Strain , 23 Hours , Blood Ties , The Vampire Diaries , Thirst , Blood: The Last Vampire , and Impaler .

Now, I understand that today's filmmakers are inspired by what excited them in their youth. And again, I acknowledge the body of work posited by Mr. Romero and his followers. And yes, having worked in the haunted attraction and performance industry, I am well aware of budgetary constrictions. Mix up some latex, color some kayro syrup, add shredded clothing and some cheap props from last year's Halloween store sale, and voila! You have the budget for the latest zombie film. Buy some entrails and stuffing from your friendly local meat distributor, set the camera (or let the audience into the haunted house) and you've got nightmares on a budget, coming soon to the Blockbuster near you.

(And if that sounded more condescending that I intended, I apologize; I really do understand the concept of homage, and not in the sneering way that term is often used.)

But we are a genre that encompasses the entire history of literature, from folk tales told around a primitive campfire to medieval manuscripts to the Bible to modern paperbacks and I Pads. Our authors include Twain, Dickens, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Poe, Updike, Oates, Bradbury, Serling, Chayesfsky, and too many others to list. Filmmakers as diverse as Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, John Frankenheimer, Werner Herzog, Carl Dreyer, and Rouben Mamoulian have felt the urge to take a dip in our pool of the macabre, with fascinating results.

What I'm getting at, is there is so much more out there , more than some “fans” can possibly imagine! (And I don't put “fans” in quotes to denigrate them; rather I use it honestly. There are people who consider themselves horror aficionados who simply don't know any better , who have no idea of the rich heritage that we celebrate in this field; who have idea who H. P. Lovecraft is, for heaven's sake!)  

Did you know, that prior to, say 1969 (and the release of a certain Black & White drive-in classic) zombies didn't eat flesh? Or brains? That they mostly rose from the dead to stare blank eyed into nothingness and work on southern or Caribbean plantations (or in the case of Hammer, a Scottish tin mine? Did you know that prior to Mr. Romero's Land Of The Dead ; the creatures weren't referred to as “zombies”? Just “the living dead”? (I phrase I much prefer.) Did you know that at one time, vampires were soulless creatures determined to suck the life substance from humans , without any thoughts of romance or Gothic longing? And that they never ever once sparkled, not even standing in the rain?

(All right, I apologize; that last one was condescending...)

Listen; I'm not trying to change your mind; not really. (Well, perhaps just a tiny bit...only a little...) This is America , and you do possess free will, despite what some sects might have you believe. If your sole sense of horror is watching rotting corpses chew on screaming victims, be my guest. If you want to wallow in deep, brooding romance between sulking lovers from two very different worlds, have at it, and enjoy.

What I am suggesting is: should you tire of these templates, there are riches beyond your imagination that await you if you choose to delve into this macabre and magical medium; dreams and nightmares beyond your wildest longings, all waiting patiently for you to expand your horizons. And it doesn't have to be a full immersion; stop into a used book store and pick up some Lovecraft for $1.00. If you don't like it? Bring it back, and exchange it for something more to your tastes. Go onto NetFlix and try one of Mr. Romero's other movies (my personal favorite, and I believe his best? Ironically, a vampire film named Martin ). If it's not your style? You subscribe to their service monthly; what have you lost? Send it back and try again.

Do you know why the Horror community is talking and blogging and going more than slightly berserk for the film The Human Centipede ? (Mention of which you will never find again on this website...) Because it's not a remake; not a reimagining, not the fourteenth adaptation of a novel that may have seen better days. It's different, unlike anything else. In the parlance, Nobody Has Ever Seen Anything Like It

Dip your toe into the deep pool of dread. Try something new. Who knows? It may be more rewarding than you could dream. And you're welcome.


* * * * * * *


I leave you with a question; those who are well-acquainted with the joys of this peculiar dark domain:

One thing that I've been doing on my sabbatical is reading. reading, and more reading. It occurred to me as well traveled and knowledgeable as I may be (I say with all due modesty), there are some works in the genre that I have neglected; classic that I've heard high praise for that I've never quite gotten around to exploring.

(And I offer a tip of the cowl to Rue Morgue Magazine. On the last page of each issue is the section called Classic Cuts , and monthly it examines obscure (and sometimes not-so-obscure) books, films, televisions shows, radio series, operas, plays, cartoons, comics, and other works that touch upon our field that the average person might not be familiar with. It's a wonderful reference, and I recommend it unreservedly.)

I've been haunting second-hand book shops in the past few months, and have found a plethora of treasures, included the script of the classic BBC series The Quatermass Experiment , Ray Bradbury's Dark Carnival , Fritz Lieber's The Big Time , Dean Koontz original version of Demon Seed (before he revised it, to it's detriment, in my opinion), and other marvels. I've just finished Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires, which was made into the movie Lifeforce (wonderful, dark novel; abysmal film; avoid it at all costs, in the name of humanity), and am about to start on William Hope Hodgson's The House On The Borderland . I've been enjoying myself immensely, if somewhat sheepishly, that I've let so many great works pass me by.

So...the question, one I posed to my HorrorHost companions a year or so ago, but I now expand somewhat.

If you are a rabid fan of this Dark Fantasy field...what classic movie, book, television show, etc....regarded by everyone as an actual classic in the genre...what are you embarrassed to admit that you haven't seen or read, for whatever reason?

(When this was asked of the Horror Writers Association - professionals in the Horror field, mind you - some were embarrassed to admit that they'd never once read Shelly's Frankenstein , or Stoker's Dracula , or Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde ; seminal works in the field. It was quite astonishing, and quite fun to hear the mea culpas . I'm certain many rushed out after answering that question to read those exact works, and another good deed is done.)

So...which ones haven't you read, or seen, even though you always meant to? Please email me your answers at carpathian@patientcreatures.com. I expect the answers will be fascinating, and equally as fun.

Until next time...I've got some reading to do. Please excuse me.  

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JUNE - JULY
2009

 

This one, this month, is for my adult friends; my young companions will want to skip these particular musings and return next month.

I rarely intrude myself in the day to day politics of the human world; one, because I am not part of that world, although I hover on the cusp with alarming regularity, and two, because politics in the long run are an incredibly unstable vehicle to hang a society on. Humanity is much more complicated than most pundits and purists would have you believe, and the idea of a born-again, pro-life NRA-member conservative sitting down and enjoying a meal and a laugh with an atheist, pro-choice pacifistic liberal is not as far-etched as the television stations and newspapers (some with a vested interested in keeping the classes divided; controversy sells more newspapers and air-time, after all) would have you believe.

Having immersed myself in a seething mass of humanity for the ten years I had my own theater at Six Flags America Fright Fest, I can state with certainty that individuals who hold diametrically opposing world views can come together and enjoy the company of one another without engaging in the blood sports that seem to pass for current political debate. All it takes is the ability to look beyond our differences at the values that we hold in similarity. This sounds ridiculously simple, but dropping all defenses and simply acknowledging that all can agree to disagree on most viewpoints is not a difficult thing once one puts ego, fear, prejudice and other barriers on the table for later collection. (If one wishes; some find it more than beneficial to leave them behind all together, but that's a discussion for another time...)

Nevertheless, even with an enlightened attitude, one can encounter prejudice in the most genial of circumstances. I have spoken in the past of mothers seeing me approaching and quickly placing their hands over their children's eyes, assuming (without knowing my intentions, or observing their young one's reactions) that I am a frightful presence and will cause anxiety in their offspring. I've pointed this out many times in the past; please forgive me for repeating myself. The fact is that the parents are reacting to their OWN fears, and projecting those fears on their children. (And oftimes it's a self-fulfilling prophesy; if you slap you hand over a young person's eyes, they are immediately going to become agitated: "What's going on? Why can't I see? What's happening...?")

I've spoken in the past on how I approach a timid little soul: entirely on THEIR terms. I keep my distance, offer my hand, speak softly, get down on their eye level, and let THEM make the choice. Oftimes they are won over; sometimes they are not. Too often adults, attempting to intervene in the situation before it is completely played out, will offer useless bits of wisdom designed to help calm the child's fears, but often having the opposite effect: "Oh, he's not real." (Of course he is; he's standing right in front of me.) "Oh, he's just make believe." (Again, what part of 'he's standing right in front of me' are you having trouble understanding?) "Oh, he's just a man in a costume." (Oh, that's SO reassuring; he's not a real ghost, he's only a scary man in a scary costume. Thank you for the morale boost...)

(And although I'm certainly self-aware enough to realize that my...um...rather STRIKING features can be intimidating to small people, I wish to point out that right jolly old elf, Santa Claus, also has this difficulty. As well as clowns, Easter Bunnies, people on stilts, knights in armor, ad infinitum. Anything out of the child's normal frame of reference can be disturbing. That's why grandparents and older people are often met with the same fears...)

The parents try and intervene, but often fail at what they do because they don't understand. They are doing something wrong, but with the absolute best of intentions.

Remember that last phrase; we will return to it.

There are other times I've experienced prejudice first hand at the actions of adults. Most often this occurs during the October Season. While I enjoy the Halloween holiday and all its traditions, certain conservative congregations and denominations across the country (and around the world, for that matter) consider Halloween a 'Satanic' celebration, a 'dark' holiday, and find the traditions controversial and unseemly, if not outright blasphemous. I have explained in the past that those who enjoy the feel of the leaves crunching under the feet, the smell of the crisp cold October air, and the sensation of the mist rolling through the pumpkin patch while creatures dance around bonfires in the night do not embrace darkness - they simply aren't afraid of it. Sadly, in my opinion, some people cannot separate the medium from the message, and cannot allow themselves to enjoy the exhilaration of the Autumn Time.

Some years ago, while I was performing at the Norristown Zoo in PA for their Halloween event, I overheard snatches of a conversation between two employees, both wearing somber expressions. I asked what might be the matter, and one said," We have some protestors outside the gate."

Protestors?

"Yes; a local church. They believe Halloween is evil and shouldn't be celebrated, and are picketing outside the main entrance."

I nodded, "I see.I'll be right back." I started off.

"Where are you going?"

"Why, to talk to them, of course."

And I did. I met a rather large gentleman outside the gate and engaged him in a discussion. He was soft-spoken but firm in his beliefs; polite; an absolute gentleman in all respects. I also remained polite and courteous, as was my want. We drew a bit of a crowd as we discussed our beliefs concerning the holiday. (He did seem surprised that I was able to quote scripture back to him as readily as he was able to quote it to me.) Our conversation lasted several minutes; at the end, we shook hands and went our ways.

Neither had changed the other's mind one bit, I'm certain, but we had remained civil, cordial, and respectful, and I think that went a long way to softening perceptions on BOTH sides o the argument. It was a meeting on whatever common ground we could agree on, and it wasn't remotely unpleasant, which bolstered my opinion expressed at the beginning of this essay.

But...I still believe the people protesting were wrong. I think it well and good to hold your own beliefs, and I will defend your absolute right to express those said beliefs whenever you wish; but to try and impose your beliefs or exert your will onto others is, again in my opinion, a disrespectful waste of time and energy.

And yet again, I believe those people were doing something wrong, but with the absolute best of intentions.

Which brings me to something here in on the Lost Coast (and in all of California ) called Proposition 8.

For those unaware of what has been happening here for some time, last year the California Supreme Court struck down laws that kept gay couples from marrying each other, finding this practice discrimination, and against the Constitutional right of equality for all. Dismayed at this, various groups sponsored an amendment to the state Constitution called Proposition 8, which would forbid gay marriages. The Proposition passed narrowly last November, and after a hearing before the California Supreme Court once again recently, was allowed to stand. (Take note: the court was not asked to decide the correctness of the amendment, but whther it followed the established procedures and could be enacted. It was, in my opinion, a very narrow ruling.)

Obviously, to myself and others who believe in equality and freedom for everyone, this was very disappointing. There was much heat generated, with misleading advertisements, news bulletins, debates, vandalism, and general animosity and rancor on both sides. It was the most expensive election campaign in California history, with much of the money coming from outside the state. I find it shameful, but like much else with this debate, that is simply a matter of individual opinion.

What is offered as fact?

Those who support the right of gay marriage do so under the simple doctrine that freedom means freedom for all, not just some. Unless it is intended to incite violence or mayhem (such as shouting "FIRE!" in a crowded theater), everyone has the right to express their beliefs - which is why the KKK and American Nazi Party are allowed to hold parades and march just as often as the World War II Veterans and the Daughters of the American Revolution. No one has the right to SUPRESS such speech; you DO have the right to ignore it, disagree with it, and offer YOUR opinion on it - just as long as you don't censor the other's right to OFFER it.

Rights for one are rights for all.

Those who oppose gay marriage, in my opinion, have no logical reason to offer in their defense, save for religious and personal anecdotal offerings. But no two religions agree on everything (otherwise there wouldn't be so many denominations in the world) so who to we use as an arbitrator. Regardless, in the United States we are offered the choice of freedom FROM religion as much as freedom OF religion.

I have seen printed tracts (usually from the abominable Jack Chick Publications) that opine that Catholics are in league with the powers of Hell, attempting to control the world, and the Pope himself is a satanic emissary. What if in some Fundamental section of the country; say in the southern Bible Belt where Baptists and other Fundamentalist denominations hold sway; they decided to vote on whether or not Catholics could marry, using their religious beliefs as political arguments.

Ridiculous, you say? But that is what happened here.

There are also those who offer the fact that the gay lifestyle is perverted, or an abomination, or unnatural. But once we get past the squeamish squishiness of what they might do in the bedroom together, what can these offer in respect to an "unnatural lifestyle". That it's against nature? Humans have been flaunting their dependence on nature since glasses, dentures, heart valves, stainless steel kneecaps, hearing aids, toupees, razors (for shaving beards) and artificial limbs were created. We create vaccines so that children do not die of childhood diseases; surely this is "against nature". Should we allow them to die to preserve natural order?

It is because they cannot bear children without artificial aid? What do we say to straight couples, infertile women and men, who face the same situation? That THEY cannot marry?

There are those that argue that "Civil Unions" are as good as marriages, and gay couples should be happy to accept those and leave marriage to "tradition". But Separate But Equal has not been the rule since Ruby Bridges walked into William Franz Public School on November 14, 1960. It simply cannot happen in a country dedicated to freedom for all.

One wonders what all the fuss is about. Why should someone else's lifestyle impact on another's? Are we not a nation of proud individuals, declining to be in lock-step with anyone else? Other than some vague wording about how this will have an affect on society (something the critics never entirely spell out), what is the objection? Morality? But morality is incredibly ill-defined in the best of circumstances, often not being black or white, and humanity's ethics have a way of shifting when the situation turns the spotlight on their own behavior. (And if you don't believe that, witness an example of a firm defender of law and order be pulled over for speeding and bullied by an overzealous police officer, or watch the stern anti-drinking-and-driving advocate try to slide behind the wheel of their vehicle after a bit too much celebration…people are far more tolerant of their OWN hypocrisies than they are of their neighbors…)

Even the religious argument holds little water when examining closely the scriptural lessons taught by the gospels. Christ held those that passed harsh and unmerciful judgments on others in the highest contempt (his language pillorying the Pharisees is often hair-raising) and quite often put forward the idea that the SUPREME judge, God himself, would be the one to make the final decision, and all trust in that decision should be put into his infallible hands. Until that time, love your neighbor as you would yourself, judge not that ye yourselves will not be judged, never set yourself against a man who wrongs you, and other radical bits of philosophy…

My friend Ms. Tina is an incurable optimist, and I bless her for it; the world is short too many of these. She believes that ANY day can be a good day, and happiness is a choice you make each morning. She believes that fully. But it is also understood that the universe can be coldly impartial to happiness and compassion, and that anyone who finds however small a piece of happiness in the vastness of this temporal plane should clasp it too them dearly always, and anyone who would try to LIMIT this precious supply should find themselves ashamed.

I have no doubt that the people opposing gay marriage, and in favor of Proposition 8, believe themselves to be good, upstanding, deeply passionate and honorable people, and I will not take them to task or quarrel. But in this instance they are off the mark as far as they can possibly be.

They are doing something wrong, but with the absolute best of intentions.

But the best of intentions pave a road to a dark, searing and desolate domain, and all who help place the mortar and brick on that highway should pause and think carefully.

In closing, I offer something light and sardonic to hopefully amuse and cause thought and discussion. This short, satirical musical was written in response to the original vote, and became one of the most popular pieces of film on YouTube. I offer it to raise a smile in the midst of heated argument:

http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/c0cf508ff8/prop-8-the-musical-starring-jack-black-john-c-reilly-and-many-more-from-fod-team-jack-black-craig-robinson-john-c-reilly-and-rashida-jones

No doubt there will be some who disagree with my opinion, and wonder why someone not even human would concern himself with a political issue. As I stated in the beginning, I am hesitant to do this at any time. But I found this one time when silent sadness would no suffice.

Humanity is not restricted to the human form, nor should it be.

And if you disagree, please feel free to engage me in discussion; I am more than delighted to oblige. But let it be calm, and rational, and courteous; anything else would be mere sound and fury, and signify nothing.


THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

APRIL - MAY
2009

 

Consider limitations…

There's a group of individual storytellers located here on the Lost Coast that met under the loose affiliation of The North Coast Storytellers. (I've mentioned them several times in previous posts, and some members past and present such as Seabury Gould and Paul Woodland have become valued companions in many of my performances.) They meet monthly at the Ink People's Center for the Performing Arts in Eureka to plan events and performances, centering mainly on the annual Stories By The Seas Festival in Trinidad that they produce. As I am a member of the organization and host the “Mostly Ghostly” event at the Festival, I try to wander over and haunt each meeting when they occur.

In past meetings, various venues have been discussed; performance halls in Humboldt County, events like the Medieval Festival of Courage and Humboldt Arts Festival, and coffeehouses like Old Town Coffee and Muddy's Hot Cup. Many times tellers have complained about inattentive crowds, restless youngsters and distracting situations at the larger venues; a lack of a sound system or designated seating for the audience, or a bustle of clanging noise and activity as baristas try and fill espresso orders. Many wistfully wish for a much more ideal setting, where the audience pays strict attention, everyone can hear clearly, and the performance carries the day.

Having performed at Renaissance Faires, Dark Fantasy and Horror conventions and amusement parks, I can certainly sympathize. Having to out shout knights on horseback, autograph seekers, Celtic bands, roller coasters and other cacophony, one certainly longs for the opportunity to tell quiet, involved tales in a sitting room setting, with dark mood lighting, audience members sunk deeply into comfortable chairs leaning forward, hanging on every word enraptured, hearing each nuance clearly and succinctly.

Indeed, that would be ideal. And, as the saying goes, if pork had wings, we'd have many more eagles in our skies…

For despite my ectoplasmic and corporeal being, I am a spirit much like Ms. Madonna, living firmly in the material world, and just as utopia is a small town in upstate New York , Ideal is simply a toy company. And a defunct one at that.

When I played in my Patient Creatures Theater in Six Flags America's Fright Fest outside Washington DC, I had to tell bloodcurdling ghost stories to a constant backdrop of screaming teenagers on spinning Tilt-A-Whirls, train whistles from the Midnight Express (whose tracks ran just past the theater), Halloween rock music played over the park's loudspeakers, and the occasional siren from the Strong Man's Booth just outside our one door, where customers would try and launch a small weight up 20 feet by hitting a seesaw with an enormous hammer, often succeeding and triggering electronic cries of “We…have…a…WINNER!!!”

I performed here to crowds that included teenagers who'd seen every NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET film and weren't a bit intimidated by a spectre telling folktales, families stopping in to rest their feet after standing in line for 30 minutes for the next batch of funnel cakes, and children that were begging their parents to take them NOW to the Trick-Or-Treat Trail so that they could fill their tote bags with candy. In this atmosphere, I was expected to hold the attention of the audience with a subtle spooky tale of hauntings and horror, without any lights, music or special effects.

And...(*ahem*…coughs into hand modestly)…for the most part I was able to do just that.

One, because a good live performance can match any DVD, movie or television episode in its very immediacy; Two, because for the most part the audiences were infallibly polite and attentive, and Three…well, because I had no choice. This was the hand dealt to me, and I decided to play it as fairly and ably as possible, with the sky the limit.

It's amazing what you can accomplish when you literally have no say in the matter. You take all the skills learned and honed and accrued to that point, take a deep breath, and plunge in. This is true as to whether you're running a marathon, typing the first page of a thousand-word novel, calling “Action!” on the first scene of your first film production…or telling a tale.

Like toning your body, increasing the amount of pushups slowly day-by-day or the distance run, limitations can actually make you stronger, tone your reflexes, and forge you into something more powerful than you were the day before. Money alone cannot buy talent or craft; it is bought and paid for by ingenuity, thinking on your feet and working your way around any problem encountered by relying on hours of practice and preparation.

By confronting the limitations set upon you and working around them or through them, you can create Art (with a capital A) from what might have simply been competence. Do you need some examples?

Stephen King's early life experiences were daunting, and have been well documented. He wrote CARRIE and ‘ SALEM 'S LOT in the laundry room of the mobile home he was living in, the typewriter balanced on his lap. Money was short, tempers were frayed, and there was a sense of desperation in his life. By writing through these obstacles, and by using his frustrations and fears as catharsis, he was able to create a dark disturbing vision of high school hatred and small-town paranoia that connected with his reading audience, making the drama bite very hard. When his drinking began to take hold of him he literally poured his demons out onto the printed page; the result was THE SHINING , a modern classic.

George Romero had a film company that was quite successful in turning out commercials, but they wanted to graduate to feature films. Realizing they didn't have the finances to make the “great American film” that they wanted to, they turned toward exploitation cinema and decided to create a horror film. They hired friends as extras, and the local butcher provided the meat products used in the gore scenes. Friends learned their lines and worked on weekends, a single location was utilized, and the makeup effects were produced hit-and-miss by the production crew. To top it off, it was filmed in Black & White on 16mm film when even low-budget features at the time were shooting in Color.

But Mr. Romero knew what he wanted to say about America and violence and people in a desperate situation, and if he had to make a Horror film, he was going to make the most explicit unrelenting film possible, far from the cardboard graveyards and organ music of the Universal imitators. The world sat up and took notice, and Horror cinema was never the same again. A print of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD currently resides in the New York Museum of Modern Art. As writer and critic Kim Newman notes, they “…had made the great American film without knowing it”.

Rod Serling grew tired of having his dramas censored by timorous television executives and broadcast standards, so he created a harmless fantasy show dealing with subjects like alien invasion, deals with the devil, robots and spaceships, ghosts and goblins, none of which could be considered the least bit controversial. But Mr. Serling had gone underground, using the tropes of Horror and Dark Fantasy as allegories as genre masters had done before, and soon he was railing against prejudice, war, alienation, violence, poverty, political expedience, mob rule, totalitarianism, and other concerns of the 1950s and 60s. Many of the best episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE still echo today; stories of man coping with the unfairness and soul-crushing forces of the world and cosmos around him.

All of these artists took the limitations presented to them and turned them on their ear, creating a body of work infused with subtext and power beyond the usual accruements of the field. They knew with each limitation what they could not do, and focused instead on what they could, choosing a path that would allow them to reach their ends while still staying true to the original inspirations.

Unconvinced? How about some more…

Harlan Ellison was told that his OUTER LIMITS script, which featured a cross-country chase, would be too expensive to film. Mr. Ellison immediately grasped at the concept of the chase as vertical instead of horizontal ; turned his protagonist loose in the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles and had the aliens surround the space with a force bubble, trapping everyone inside, eliciting a pursuit from floor to floor. “Demon With A Glass Hand” became an award-winning teleplay and a classic example of the visual genre.

Producer/Director Herk Harvey has difficulty raising funds for his first feature film. He constructed a story that used one main character, a handful of supporting players, and made good use of an abandoned music pier nearby. He also filmed in Black & White and used no soundtrack. CARNIVAL OF SOULS is still lauded by critics as a classic avant-garde piece and a sure example of intelligent, low-budget fear.

Gene Roddenberry didn't have the budget for huge special effects for his science fiction series, so he focused on the relationships and characters on board the ship, using his stories (like Mr. Serling) to create intimate drama commenting on the social conditions of the day. STAR TREK is a pop-culture icon, with several feature films and TV series spin-offs to its credit, and is still regarded as one of the most mature examples of television produced.

Despite his astonishing successes, Alfred Hitchcock was unable to interest Paramount in his newest project; it is rejected as being too lurid and unfilmable. Financing the movie himself by using a skeleton crew of technicians from his television series, Mr. Hitchcock filmed the movie in Black & White on a miniscule budget, hiring only one star actress and using little-known actors for supporting roles, including a young man with relatively few film credits. Anthony Perkins became a star, and PSYCHO became one of the most celebrated Horror films of all time.

The producers of KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER realized that they would be unable to create effective monsters on the low-budget ABC had assigned to them; worse, broadcast standards prohibited any extreme mayhem. Darren McGavin, as Executive Producer, decided to take his cue from the early studio films by using suggestion and misdirection. The monsters are barely glimpsed and filmed in dark lighting to hide their flaws (and also make them more terrifying in the imaginations of the audience). He also used a hand-held camera to create a realistic cinema-verte effect, heightening the suspense and unease long before HILL STREET BLUES and HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS discovered the versatility of the Ariflex. I might be mistaken, but I believe THE NIGHT STALKER was the first series to extensively use the hand-held camera, although it would certainly not be the last.

These are just some of the more famous examples that come to mind. With a little bit of effort I know I can come up with many, many more.

Yes, certain filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick create Art by carefully designing and planning every single aspect of each film – lighting, camera position, set design, casting, script supervision – making certain each frame reflects exactly what the director intends and leaving absolutely nothing to chance.

But…Mr. Kubrick found himself in a very difficult position after 2001 was released. He spent years… years! ...planning his next project: a biography of Napoleon. What? I hear you ask. Kubrick never made a movie about Napoleon. Very true. Because right before filming was to commence, the movie lost its financial backing, and was cancelled, after Mr. Kubrick spent those years in preparation.

Searching for something…anything…to fill the void, Mr. Kubrick came upon a novel: A CLOCKWORK ORANGE . Quickly he arranged to purchase the rights and have a script written. Because there was no time to build sets he decided to film everything on location, totally against his usual working method. (Even the outdoor scenes in 2001, THE SHINING and FULL METAL JACKET were filmed on soundstages so that he could control the lighting and filming conditions.) He decided to light the scenes – as carefully as usual – using only portable lamps and available lighting. He filmed much of the movie with hand-held or small portable cameras and used a skeleton crew to work quickly. In short, he broke almost every rule he himself had established in making his movies.

And what as glorious achievement A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is! Mr. Kubrick's own version of guerilla filmmaking was purchased, preproduced, filmed, edited and released within one year …an astonishing short time for Mr. Kubrick to work. All because of necessity.

And so I think of limitations, and I'm haunted by a comment made by Steven Spielberg during the 20 th anniversary of the release of the classic film JAWS . He mentioned in the interview that the mechanical shark was supposed to appear on screen much more frequently, but because the mechanisms failed to work properly, Mr. Spielberg had to improvise more shots around the creature, using the Hitchcock technique of only filming bits of the monster, leaving much of it unseen beneath the surface of the ocean. If he had had his way with his original vision, the shark would have been seen much more clearly.

I'm haunted by that, because the deliberate obscuring of the shark was what made JAWS so terrifying. It was the very technique of keeping it from view as much as possible that makes that movie so effective to this day, increasing the tension and making the sight of the monster breaking the surface of the sea truly shocking.

I think of JURRASIC PARK , with its marvelous dinosaur effects, showing the beast in loving detail, much as Mr. Spielberg would have shown the shark in JAWS . And as much as I enjoyed the film (including the hair-raising Tyrannosaurus scene), very little of it has remained with me as the years have passed. It remains an entertaining movie, but little more, resonating not at all.

But I can close my ears and still remember JAWS vividly; Quint's monologue on the Orca ( which my hostess Ms. Tina likes to quote: “Have you ever seen a shark's eyes? They're like a doll's; black and lifeless…”); Hooper exploring the wrecked hull of the boat by snorkel, pulling loose a tooth and tipping the lifeless head of the dead fisherman out into the water; the slow shark's-eye view of the ocean bottom sliding past as the creature approaches the beach and the theme music echoes ominously in our ears…

The limitations were what made the movie a classic, just as the limitations of the alien design in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND made that film much more effective, forcing the beings to be filmed in silhouette against a brightly-lit background and not allowing the camera to follow Richard Dreyfus into the ship. When the Special Edition was released with enhanced footage, much of the impact of the original was lost.

Which brings us to the life of Mr. Poe, whose birthday we celebrate this month. Certainly he could not be said to have an ideal life. Losing his true love at a young age, beset by gambling debts and family squabbles, jeered by the literary establishment of his day, gossiped and slandered by his jealous contemporaries (who deemed him an alcoholic, drug addict or madman) and beset by ill-health (many believe that he died from being afflicted with rabies). Certainly a man whose abilities were so sublimely attuned to his Art could have benefited from a more ideal life.

Yet what grandeur he left behind, to endure long after his critics are gone and forgotten. What masterpieces of a genre long held in contempt; Poe's work silences into shame those that belittle the field as “juvenile”, “unsubstantial” and “worthless”. Despite the limitations of his life, Edgar Allen Poe reached far beyond the tribulations that bound him in his time and created work that outlived his creator. Which is all that he wished for and more than he could have imagined.

Limitations are there to be overcome; as the poet once wrote, Man's reach must far exceed his grasp.

May all of you recognize your own limitations, and leap over them spectacularly.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

MARCH
2009

 

It never fails to happen.

When I perform for an audience of young people, I will first notice a small murmur of uncertainty when I enter the room or theater. (This is most understandable; after all, they may not have seen someone as handsome as Yours truly in their young lives…) After my introduction as a ghostly storyteller, I will ask the audience what they would like for their first tale; shall it be funny or scary?

Almost in unison, the answer is the same: “Scary!!”

When I was performing at Six Flag America many years ago, there was an angelic little girl who would come to listen to my tales. If she happened to see me outside the theater before the performance, she would come up to me and shyly ask if she could make a request for the upcoming show. Certainly, I would say. What story would you like?

She would say, “I really want to hear ‘Drip…Drip…Drip…' !”

Now, Drip…Drip…Drip… is an urban legend I will sometimes impart to an adult audience. It contains a mad killer, an evisceration, and a bloodied corpse hung from a tree, emptying its life onto the car sitting beneath it. It is…ummmm…one of my less subtle tales, if you will. Apparently my friend found herself in attendance with some older customers and heard the story, and it became her favorite.

I've said it before, and I will repeat myself at the risk of boring you: young people, for the most part, love to be frightened.

Notice I said for the most part . Like adults, there are some children that don't like scary tales at all. And there are degrees of scariness that other children accept in their films, books and televisions episodes. What is too scary for one is not frightening enough for others.

(There is a term in the haunted attraction industry: a good scare. That refers to a fright that causes a scream, a skipped heartbeat, or a jump…and usually ends in a laugh as a person sheepishly realizes that they were afraid of sound and fury alone. It is a care one enjoys, as opposed to one that leaves the customer disoriented, dismayed and sometimes angry.)

Young people do enjoy good scares. And despite the well-meaning naiveté of many parents, they will continue to seek out these scares, because they are important in their young lives. Dealing with minor fears in a story or movie helps them deal with the much larger issues of living in a world that towers over their small size, startles them with loud noises, and threatens their existence in even in the relative safety of the home . (“Johnny, don't play with the electrical outlet; it's dangerous…Mary, don't climb on that chair; you'll fall and get hurt…Tommy, stay out of the medicine cabinet; there are poisonous things in there…”)

Now don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting we throw open all the doors and allow six-year-olds to watch THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET . There is much nihilism and cynicism in modern horror that can only be appreciated once several mature life lessons have been learned. Children do not need to see Ben, the nominal hero of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD , shot through the head at the end of the film, mistaken for a zombie; there will be time enough to learn in life that the good does not always triumph. And the dreams of youngsters can be visceral enough without subjecting them to Freddy Krueger, Leatherface or Jason. (Which dismays me when I see small ones dressed up as these characters for Halloween…but that's a topic for another essay…)

What I am saying is that parents that overly worry about what may frighten their young ones and try and censor such material in toto are fighting a losing battle. For a number of reasons:

One, because although we believe we know what might scare our children, we never really do. The interior landscape of young people's imaginations are so vivid and varied that one can't tell what errant phrase or image might strike the right chord of terror to connect the synapses in their brains. Stephen King tells the amusing tale of the boy who had trouble going to sleep for two weeks, troubled by a monster he had heard his father and uncle discussing. It took carefully questioning from the parents to determine that the fearsome beast of his nightmares was the dreaded twi-night double-header .

My human companion Bob remembers, long back almost to where conscious memory reaches, that the television station he would watch as a boy would put up a placard whenever the signal was lost or other glitches occurred. It was picture of a Charlie Chaplinesque character holding a sign that read Technical Difficulties. Please Stand By. After a few minutes of this cartoon, the announcer's voice would come on and say, “We are experiencing technical difficulties; please stand by.” For some unknown reason (Bob thinks it might tie in to loss of control in the world, but that might just be an adult rationalization) this image and the voice terrified him and haunted many childhood nights; so much so that to this day, as an adult and father, whenever a television station blacks out and that announcement is made, Bob experiences a blast of Freon that travels down his spine and a sharp stab of terror.

The other reason I believe parents cannot limit the fears their children face is that, in the end, these fears are good for them. Overcoming adversity is a way to grow, and using entertainment to teach this is a long and honorable tradition. Fables, faerie tales and stories with morals are all important to the well-being of youngsters; it allows them to examine troublesome scenarios and consider what they might do and what they are afraid of. When the heroes of these tales triumph, the child triumphs vicariously through them, and emerges a little less afraid.

This won't happen overnight, of course, and young people will still be fearful. But those tales that teach will stay with them probably long after they've reached adulthood. What is THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE OUTER LIMITS , or any good Dark Fantasy and Horror film other than a grown-up fable or faerie tale that allows adults to examine some of their darker fears and imaginings? Catharsis is an essential function of Art, after all.

On a recent parent's blog, a woman asked if the traditional, unedited faerie tales were too fierce and frightening for children. There was disagreement from many who responded; it is an argument that will not be settled anytime soon. One mother has decided to read the toned-down version to her children, noting that when her mother read the original tale of Hansel and Gretel to her four-year-old grandson, he became terrified of the witch that ate the children, and clung to his mother, following her around the house. While I appreciate the woman's concern, I submit that if it hadn't been Hansel and Gretel, something else would have scared the boy, something that no one would have been able to foresee.

Which brings us to the film CORALINE , currently playing in theaters around the country.

Almost every review that I've read praises the film, but notes that it is definitely too frightening for younger children. These reviews are correct, in a way. The film is frightening, in the classic faerie tale tradition. Coraline is a young girl in a new town, starting a new school, feeling neglected by her busy parents. She finds a doll that looks exactly like her, then goes through a small door in her living room that leads to a world where there is another mother and father who dote on her, granting her whatever she wants. But these parents are peculiar: they have buttons for eyes, and are eager to have Coraline stay forever .

There are sequences that are chilling to adult sensibilities: ghost children with buttons for eyes; a disembodied hand that searches for a mysterious key, and a woman that transforms into a spider-like witch named the “Belle Dame”. When my human friends Bob and Ms. Tina took their little girl Miss D. to see the film, they were concerned that she might be frightened by the images. Ms. Tina certainly was, and gripped Bob's hand tightly during several suspenseful parts of the movie.

But Miss D. understood several things about the movie: first, that it was animated like THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS , which she loves and finds not the least bit scary (counting Jack Skellington and Sally as two of her favorite film characters). Second, she understood the rules of the faerie tale: things might look bleak, but courage, ingenuity and friendship will carry the day. And Coraline possesses those qualities indeed. She is an incredibly brave and able girl, determined to do the right thing even if it puts her in danger. She also has two true companions to stand by her side and assist her through the difficult times: a young man named Wybie and a talking black cat, who councils her on the correct path to take. Adventuring with Coraline is a pleasure, and she touches the lives of the residents of both worlds as much as the audience; a modern-day Alice Through The Looking Glass who defeats the darkness. And she wasn't frightened one bit. Excited, sure; but not frightened.

(And in case you are getting the wrong idea from my description, let me state that CORALINE is filled with wonders as well: a Mouse Circus of rodent performers doing acrobatics and playing in a marching band; a garden filled with every kind of magic flower imaginable, including tiny snap dragons that actually snap and tickle and floating Jack O' Lanterns, all tilled by a tractor shaped like a praying mantis; and a piano with magic gloves that allows the performer to be played like a puppet. It is a marvelous movie filled images to amaze, delight, enthrall…yes, and frighten …)

This is the essence of the fable, and CORALINE pulls it off wonderfully, with subtle lessons on the true nature of life and love:


“Stay here with us,” said the voice from the figure at the end of the room. “We will listen to you and play with you and laugh with you. Your other mother will build whole worlds for you to explore, and tear them down every night when you are done. Every day will be better and brighter than the one that went before. Remember the toy box? How much better would a world be build just like that, and all for you?”

“And will there be gray, wet days where I just don't know what to do and there's nothing to read or to watch and nowhere to go and the day drags on forever?” asked Coraline.

From the shadows, the man said, “Never.”

“And will there be awful meals, with food made from recipes, with garlic and tarragon and broad beans in?” asked Coraline.

“Every meal will be a thing of joy,” whispered the voice from under the old man's hat. “Nothing will pass your lips that does not entirely delight you.”

“And could I have Day-Glo green gloves to wear, and yellow Wellington boots in the shape of frogs?” asked Coraline.

“Frogs, ducks, rhinos, octopuses–whatever you desire. The world will be build new for you every morning. If you stay here, you can have whatever you want.”

Coraline sighed. “You really don't understand, do you?” she said. “I don't want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn't mean anything. What then?”


That's a passage from the original novel by Neil Gaiman, a Fantasist of the highest degree who understands the power and presence of the fable, translated almost literally by director and screenwriter Henry Selick for the film.

I've said before many times: fear is not something humanity is born with; it is something that is learned from the world around you. On the other side, courage is not necessarily a thing you are born with either. It is taught through love and example; by parents, teachers and mentors…and stories.

Scary stories – the good kind of scary – are very good for young people, and they enjoy them immensely. Just ask Miss D: she's been back to see CORALINE again already, and wants to see it yet again.

And so do I.


THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

jan - feb
2009

 

I've been considering of late why current horror films are so filled with gore.

Not that horror movies haven't always had some blood factor to them. When the Hammer films were released in the 1950s, they caused a sensation simply because all the blood, decay, severed limbs and moldy graves were now in glorious Technicolor, as opposed to Universal's lustrous Black-&-White. Few will remember today what a sensation HORROR OF DRACULA caused when, during the opening credits, bright scarlet dripped down onto Dracula's coffin. The effect was earthshattering, and debates began even then about how much violence would be acceptable to audience's sensitivities.

But today horror filmmakers seem to be engaged in a game of cinematic one-upmanship, trying to present the most outrageous, mind-numbing, stomach-churning effects possible. You need not even view the films themselves; browse through the latest issues of FANGORIA and see the carnage for yourself. From HOSTEL to the SAW films to the remake of MY BLOODY VALENTINE (in 3D!) filmmakers have pushed the special effects needed to create grue and splatter to new heights (or depths, I suppose, depending on your point of view), without seeming to be concerned about pushing characterization, cinematography or storytelling to the same degree (he said smarmily…)

Of course, this is hardly new. In the seventies, when Tom Savini was plying his trade with prosthetics and latex, there was an outcry about the amount of bloodshed in the so-called “Slasher Films”, with FRIDAY THE 13 TH , PROM NIGHT, TERROR TRAIN, THE BURNING, MANIAC, and MY BLOODY VALENTINE (deja vu all over again) leading the parade. Critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert and author Harlan Ellison (whose essays about the subject I've been perusing lately; check out his non-fiction collection An Edge In My Voice ) were at the forefront of those bemoaning the genre becoming a charnel house interested only in lovingly detailed close-ups of butchery and dismemberment. (Mr. Ellison, a fan and author of much Dark Fantasy, dubbed these films “knife-kill movies” as opposed to “horror films” to differentiate them; I think that sums them up admirably.) Fans of these films fought back in pages of movie magazines, and quite a dust-up occurred until the phenomenon petered out from over-familiarity. (Although I don't believe it ever completely went away.)

There are many reasons sited for the reemergence of extreme mayhem. One is that special effects (GCI, computer editing, etc.) makes it far easier to present realistic atrocities, and filmmakers are simply using the tools at hand to expand the envelope. Some believe that films travel in cycles, and that, like the 1970s, interest in gore has resumed among younger fans who don't remember the original films.

I have my own theory, of course. (You suspected that, I'm certain.) I believe that new bloodbath is simply because at this time in entertainment history… gore has become mainstream! Allow me to explain…

In television, there has always been an outcry against gratuitous violence, as far back as the shoot-outs that were the mainstay of THE UNTOUCHABLES and continuing into the seventies with SWAT, THE ROOKIES, BARETTA, and other series. But even then, violence was overseen by broadcast standards, and limited mostly to exploding rounds and squibs. Horror too was watered down, so much so that it's surprising that the few Horror movies and television shows seen during that decade were still able to create genuine scares, such as TRILOGY OF TERROR, DUEL, BAD RONALD, and episodes of NIGHT GALLERY and KOLCHAK, THE NIGHT STALKER . A common request was that images and scenes should “avoid shocking the sensibilities of the audience”, overlooking the fact that the audience was watching to have their sensibilities shocked.

(An interesting digression: Stephen King was just emerging as the new voice in Horror, with Carrie, Salem 's Lot and The Shining . After his short story collection Night Shift was published, Mr. King was approached by the networks to create and host his own NIGHT GALLERY -type anthology series. He turned them down, saying he didn't think genuine scares could be created with broadcast standards binding his hands. When asked what he meant, he said, “On the old THRILLER series episode called ‘Pigeons From Hell' , a young man staggers down the stairs of a bayou mansion holding an axe, his head split open, blood pouring down. All this was shown, not suggested. Could I do something like that today?” The network executives thought for a long moment, then said, “Well…maybe you could have his chest split open…” Mr. King didn't believe them and passed.)

With the miniseries of Stephen King's IT (ironic, considering my last digression), the networks loosened the reigns to allow genuine horror to emerge. There were balloons filled with blood, severed heads coming to life, corpses emerging from beneath beds…a whole plethora of images that paved the way for TWIN PEAKS , THE X FILES and other shows and movies. But …it did not have graphic gore, like the Slasher Films. That would have to wait for the coming of another series in the 1990s…a show that, remarkably, was not a genre show.

That show was CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION.

Forensic criminology had been featured on television before with the series QUINCY . Remember the opening credits? It was a scene taken from the pilot movie, and it was a delight. Quincy wanted to leave his office to investigate a lead in a murder; his boss told him no; leave it to the police. And to make certain that he couldn't leave, he scheduled a lecture with some new police recruits to discuss forensics.

Annoyed, Quincy wheels in a sheet-covered gurney. He approaches it and speaks: “Gentlemen…you are about to enter one of the most fascinating spheres of police work: the world of forensic medicine.” He indicates the gurney. “This body was discovered floating in the local tributary; it's believed to have been submerged for over four weeks.” He rips the sheet off a four-week-old submerged body, and two students run for the door, holding back the bile in their throats.

Quincy continues: “To get into the chest cavity of a subject, there are several methods available, the quickest, and my own preference, is the S-Cut.” His hand takes the scalpel and slashes hard and fast, and an officer falls in a dead faint. The lecture continues in this way for a few more minutes, with the remaining rookies turning green, throwing up, or running from the room in horror. Quincy looks around at the empty room, smiles, and leaves the building to continue his investigation. It was a marvelous scene, inventive and filled with dark humor very much establishing Quincy 's character.

But the body was never shown! Because of network standards it was kept discretely below camera range. Nothing graphic was seen; all of Quincy 's dissection procedures were verbalized, with the images left to the viewers imaginations.

But CSI was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, best known for his high-adrenaline action movies such as TOP GUN, CRIMSON TIDE, THE ROCK, CON AIR, and the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN . His films are fast-paced, his visual style is edgy and immediate, and he brought those same precepts to a concept that was primarily cerebral in nature. On CSI you saw computer animation of the bullets entering the victims, shattering bone and tearing muscle. You saw graphic autopsy footage that suddenly zoomed in for close-ups of shattered glass in a skull. It lent a distinct visual flair to the proceedings that made the show a long-running hit.

More so, it opened the door for similar series to expand the graphic nature of their storytelling. THE X FILES , which initially started out far more suggestively, became more visceral as the series continued, culminating in one episode with a warlock removing his face with a scalpel in order to assume another man's identity, all without the camera looking away. Gruesome to be sure, but CSI was there ahead of any genre effort, making many of its regular viewers gasp at the audacity shown. (Frank, my companion from Six Flags America and a long-time viewer, recalls with aghast glee the classic episode where a corpse, left in the dessert in a suitcase for several months, is brought into the CSI lab and literally poured out onto the examination table…) On the recent series finale of William Peterson's character, we were treated to a man bludgeoned to death, stuffed into a trash bag, dumped in the woods, and a computer generated time-lapse of the man's body rotting away before it was found.

The effect was this: mainstream viewers who had absolutely no interest in Horror or Dark Fantasy, who would turn away at the very thought of sitting through FRIDAY THE 13 TH , BLOOD FEAST or THE HILLS HAVE EYES , had no difficulty following the exploits of Gil Grissom and his team, no matter how grisly or ghastly, and making the series one of the biggest hits on network television, spawning numerous imitators and two spin-offs at this writing.

If you are as I, a fan of the medical series HOUSE , you can see the trend continue. Whether it's a heart attack, an exploding embolism, kidney's shutting down or spontaneous bleeding of cancer cells, the camera zips here and there inside the computer-generated bodies, detailing each emergency vividly. A recent episode featured an shocking, powerful scene: a patient clamped into an operating harness, the top of her skull removed and her brain exposed, the doctors probing tenderly as Dr. House read her a series of questions to test her monitored responses.

( Long gone are the days of television physicians reaching discretely off-camera to remove an appendix.)

And Horror filmmakers, either experienced hands or those new to the field, look at the mainstream shows consistently in the Top Ten ratings, see the amount of gore produced, look at their scripts and say, “Well, we can't just have her head chopped off; COLD CASE did that last week. We need it chopped off while she's still screaming! And her eyes exploding! Yeah! And maybe her brain oozing out of her ears and from her open mouth! And…”

And, and, and, as you will, ad nauseum quite literally in some cases.

Now before it's presumed I have an aversion to on-screen mayhem, may I point out that two directors I consider geniuses in the field are Mr. Romero and Mr. Cronenberg, neither of which are known for their drawing room comedies? That I've championed Jim Van Bebber's THE MANSON FAMILY as one of the most important films of the past several years? That I consider THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE a modern classic? That PAN'S LABRYNTH contains some truly intense acts of graphic violence, including one bit with a kitchen knife that has everyone gasping no matter how hardened a filmgoer you might be, and I think that film one of the greatest Dark Fantasy experiences of all time?

No, my Friends, it is not the violence, nor even the gore. It is what is commonly called “gratuitous violence”, where the mayhem is not germane to the plot, but is there primarily to show off the skills of the technicians involved and get teenage boys standing in the aisles, pumping their fists into the air and hooting like gibbons. (Perhaps I generalize unfairly…so be it.) The sort of material that is commonly and currently called “Torture Porn”, where the plot is not advanced, characters are not detailed, truths are not revealed, other than that the human psyche is capable of extreme brutality and cruelty, and the human form is squishy, fragile, and easily ruptured in colorful, gelatous ways. To quote Neil Gaiman from a classic SANDMAN story, “We already knew that.”

(And I will be saying a few things about this new classification of the genre. Not next time, but soon. There are things that need to be said about it, and audience's reactions to it.)

Remember JAWS ? The controversy when it was first released, about actually daring to show a severed leg drifting to the bottom of the ocean, a half-eaten head sliding out of the bottom of a damaged boat, or seeing a man devoured by a shark, screaming all the while? Mr. Spielberg defended those scenes as necessary to the integrity of the story, and I will attest to that statement in any court in the land, along with the shower murder in PSYCHO , the cannibalism and trowel matricide in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD , the exploding head in SCANNERS , and the roar of that terrible timber-cutting machine of Tobe Hooper.

Nowadays the horrors from the shark attacking Amity Island seem positively quaint.

What I find annoying in many cases is the attitude that this is somehow groundbreaking, instead of the cinematic equivalent of sitting around a campfire playing Can You Top This? Also annoying is the attitude of many fans that if you don't appreciate “The New Gore”, you aren't a real horror movie fan. To which I reply, PLLBBBBBTTTTTTT!!!

The act of exploiting more and more carnage, of giving movies over not to the writer or director but the makeup and special effects technicians, bodes not at all well for our genre. Turning up the splatter volume switch to 11 does not a great film experience make, even among hard-core fans. (How many on-line reviews have stated, more-or-less unanimously, “Yeah, the gore effects in MY BLOODY VALENTINE are pretty good, but the movie is a dog!”

Ah, well. I may not be getting the adult, disturbing, thought-provoking films I want and deserve, but I'm getting a lot of good books read. I fear I'll continue doing so until someone takes the cameras out of the hands of the arrested adolescents of every age and gives them over to the grown-ups.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

OCT - DEC
2008

 

Greetings everyone! I offer a warm welcome back to all my friends who've passed this way before, and a salutation to any newcomers and visitors making their first foray into my crypt. It's a delight to have you here, and a great pleasure to be back!

For those unaware: I began this website with my companions the Patient Creatures almost 10 years ago to keep my fans updated on my performance schedules throughout the East Coast of the United States. Because I wanted to offer more than just a Calendar of Events for those perusing the Internet, this site became an entertainment site, changing monthly, and offering essays, photos of recent appearances, artwork, movie and book reviews, and a plethora of other activity.

For six of those years my Patient Creatures assisted me in the look and information on this site, with more then a little guidance from our webmaster Count Gore De Vol (whose own website, Creature Feature, The Weekly Web Program is still going strong after ten years at www.countgore.com).

Then changes took place. My human companion Bob moved from the wonderfully gothic Philadelphia area to the haunted and misty Lost Coast of Humboldt County, California , to marry his true love Ms. Tina. I decided to join him, and the Patient Creatures and I parted company. They continue to perform at various venues under their new title Creatures East, and their website morphed consequently into www.creatureseast.com.

I continued to put this site together myself, but I'm afraid after two years or so it became simply too much for one spectre (and a luddite one at that!) to continue. Plus, there was a sense that I had said all there was to say, and accomplished all there was to do. I was also getting weary of wandering, and wanted to rest for a time.

So I took a sabbatical, and closed the site, deciding that, should I begin again, I would streamline and simplify it to keep from exhausting myself.

This year I began to emerge from my self-imposed retirement. First with a series of St. Patrick's Day performances (telling Irish ghost stories with my friend Seabury Gould and his Celtic ensemble Scatter The Mud), then with a few summer appearances, and finally this October, which was one of the busiest in recent memory. (I suppose I was missed! How wonderful!) I then decided it was time to bring the website back from the dead, so to speak, to help keep everyone informed about my activities. (I had wanted it to be up in time for Halloween, but as busy as I was…well, the best made plans of ghouls and phantoms…)

You can see the results here for yourselves. I hope you enjoy them, and will continue to come back again for regular visits. Even if I cannot always greet you in person, I wanted this site to be a way to reach out and stay in contact with my many friends, particularly those on the Eastern side of this country that I don't see very often anymore.

Now, as to the ground rules, and the changes made (as arbitrary as every):

Once again I intend this site to be an entertainment site, with much to read and see. It will remain family-friendly, suitable for everyone's viewing (with a small disclaimer I ask you to note on my MENU Page). It will be changed by the 1st of each month, barring any technical difficulties. However, unlike the previous incarnation, not everything will change on a continual basis. If I'm particularly pleased with an essay of story that I find, I may leave it up for an extended period of time. I will note the changes each month on the small message I'll leave on the Menu Page, so you can see what's different.

As always, I'll be updating the CALENDAR Page constantly, even during the course of the month if new appearances are scheduled. Do check back regularly to keep up on the new dates; I'd hate to miss you when I come out to play!

Among the biggest changes are my essays here, my views on whatever may strike my fancy. If you'll recall, before I was writing an essay each month...the movie and book reviews...the updates of my latest travels...in other words, pretty much everything on the site! I was wearing my ectoplasmic fingers down to the...well, I suppose bone will do. Even if I had a strong opinion on something, by the time I tried to get it down on paper I was stretched far too thin.

Now I will concentrate my thoughts here, whether it's relaying an incident that amuses or makes one ponder, or commenting on a recent film, book or item I think you might enjoy or find provocative, or rambling on about the Dark Fantasy genre I love so dearly. I have consolidated all those here onto a single page for the month. And, as can often happen, if I have nothing in particular to say at the time (hard to believe, I'm certain...) I will simply leave up the previous month's thoughts for your continued enjoyment.

The CAMERA OBSCURA Page has also been overhauled. Before it was primarily a place where photos of my recent shows were displayed. But I would also write of these adventures on the WHAT'S NEW Page, and therefore have decided to combine them into one avenue, keeping the essays shorter and hitting on the highlights of each experience. After all, a picture is worth one thousand words the poets claim, and who am I to argue? So CAMERA OBSCURA will be snapshots of my wanderings. either literally or in prose form. And, of course, I welcome any and all photos taken by our friends and audience: please send any snapshots or portraits to carpathian@patientcreatures.com, and I will gladly post them, with proper credit given, of course.

THE TWILIGHT GALLERY is back again, and I am quite delighted, for it is one of my favorite pages. I welcome artwork in any media: pencils, pen & ink, oils, photos, even a picture of a sculpture or two. I am starting fresh this month with a wonderfully evocative Halloween print from our dear friend Bernadette from Six Flags America in Washington DC . As with Camera Obscura, if you would like to submit something for consideration to our Gallery, simply email to carpathian@patientcreatures.com, and I'll gladly display it!

I'm also pleased to return THE PARTING GLASS Page to this site. This is my closing sentiment for the month, and it can be anything at all that you or I wish it to be; news articles, cartoons, song lyrics, anything that doesn't quite fit in with the other pages but deserves to be seen. You can submit your ideas for this as well by emailing carpathian@patientcreatures.com.

I've included my email address in the preceding paragraphs; you might ask then where is the Dead Letters Page? It's coming, I promise. I simply wanted to get things up and running again. And I will be adding a few other pages to the site in the months to come, expanding it according to your wishes and mine. Please, please offer as many suggestions as you will; I promise to listen to all of them, even if I find I cannot honor them all.

Which brings me to another subject that I must stress: I love reading all your correspondences, and listen intently to all your news and suggestions. However, because I am quite busy wandering and performing, I do not always have the opportunity to respond personally, or immediately. I apologize for this, but please don't think that because you do not receive a timely answer that I am ignoring you. I will often respond on my Letters Page, or by acknowledging the person behind a suggestion when I post the subject itself. But do know that I treasure your missives, and wouldn't want to be without them for an instant. I'm simply afraid spectres, especially wandering ones, make very poor letter writers...

Some pages you'll not find here; I've removed the Store simply because I am completely sold out of my first CD 3 TALES OF CARPATHIAN, and don't know if it will be reissued. (But I may resurrect it some time in the future; we shall see.) The Trivia Page is also absent; I think I will use The Parting Glass to dispense any important fun facts I may run across. As for contacting me to suggest a performing venue or to invite me to your function, that is as simple as writing to carpathian@patientcreatures.com.

You can also reach me at one of two other sites I maintain: I am listed with the storytelling network entitled (quite naturally enough) Storyteller.net. You can log onto my page at www.storyteller.net/tellers/carpathian. I also maintain a MySpace Page, which can be found at www.myspace.com/patientcreature. (With all these places I'm lurking, it's like I never went away!!)

And, of course, I'll be here in my crypt monthly, studying the new talents and tales in the Dark Fantasy genre, preparing for my next journey, or reading the messages received from all those I've missed. And I have missed you all.

Thank you for returning to see me. I hope I'll see you all again very soon, either here or in person. I hope you find me an agreeable if macabre companion, and I hope you'll enjoy tagging along with me on wherever the misty breezes of the night carry me.

Wherever that may be, I promise you a tale and an adventure...


 

 

 

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