One of the pleasures I devise from being part of our beloved Genre is discovering a new bit of Horror or Dark Fantasy that I am pleased to pass along to my human companions. Each month I will be sharing with you something I have seen, read, listened to, and give my personal endorsement; I hope that these will bring hours of enjoyment and entertainment to those who truly love the macabre malevolence and mysterious magnificence of the Dark Fantastic…

 

Once again I choose to break my cardinal rule of never recommending anything without seeing it first. I have seen the trailers, if that means anything, and I find the idea so wonderfully intriguing that I feel I'm on firm ground. Let's start from the beginning…

Writing stories around a common universe is a respected literary tradition. Mind you, I'm not talking about series or sequels; I refer to stories that share the same background but might have completely different characters and plotlines unassociated with other stories in the milieu. This is often referred to as the “Shared Universe”.



For instance, many fans have written of characters and events mentioned in the STAR TREK universe that were never investigated by the professional creators. (Although the producers of STAR TREK themselves investigated multiple shared universes with the original series, THE NEXT GENERATION, DEEP SPACE NINE, VOYAGER and ENTERPRISE.) Harlan Ellison has written many shared background stories about Earth's battle with the alien Kyben, although the individual stories don't mention each other or their events. (This includes the award-winning teleplay “Demon with a Glass Hand” from the original OUTER LIMITS series.)

J. R. Tolkien wrote stories about Middle Earth after the events of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”; these were collected in tome “The Silmarillion”. And most recently Stephen King continued the events in the world of the Dark Tower with stories set in the same universe but not part of the series, including the novella “The Little Sisters of Eluria” and the novel “The Wind Through the Keyhole”.



So I was very excited to learn that J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, was attempting a screenplay based in the Potter universe but without any of the characters and history of the stories. The movie, named FANTASTIC BEASTS (& WHERE TO FIND THEM) has completed filming is scheduled to be released this November.

I'm impressed with this in two ways. First, this is Ms. Rowland's first original screenplay – or first screenplay period, for that matter. (All of the HARRY POTTER films were adapted by Steve Kloves, with the exception of the fifth film HARRY POTTER & THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX , which was written by Michael Goldenberg). It will be fascinating to see if her imaginative talents translate well into the visual medium.

Second, I find it wonderful that, having concluded the Harry Potter series, Ms. Rowling, like Misters Tolkien and King before her, still maintains enough interest in the world she created that she feels more tales are possible, if not inevitable. This speaks admirably of the world she endowed with painstaking detail and bodes well for future tales with characters as memorable as the Hogwarts crew.



For the uninitiated – and I am one myself, much to the consternation of my human friends who've urged me to read the Harry Potter books (and I've not avoided them for any particular reason; I'm certain they're everything the fans claim them to be. I simply haven't gotten to them) – FANTASTIC BEASTS is based upon a book written by Mr. Rowling in 2001 as a companion to the series. “Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them” is a faux textbook listing the magical creatures in the Harry Potter universe, it's referenced in the series as a book carried by Harry and authored by “Newt Scamander” (Ms. Rowland's pseudonym) with handwritten noted by Harry, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger inside, detailing their experiences with the beasts listed. It was created to benefit the Comics Relief charity, along with a companion volume “Quidditch through the Ages” .

Ms. Rowling became fascinated with the potential of the character of Scamander (who never appears in the series but is mentioned in several of the books) and devised a story featuring his adventures in writing the volume. The film takes place in 1926, 75 years before the incidents in the Harry Potter books and is set in New York City. It's planned as the first of a trilogy and is also being produced by Ms. Rowling along with Mr. Kloves, David Heyman (the HARRY POTTER series) and Lionel Wigram ( SHERLOCK HOLMES, SHERLOCK HOLMES: GAME OF SHADOWS ). It's being directed by David Yates, who directed the final three HARRY POTTER films (actually the final four, since HARRY POTTER & THE DEATHLY HALLOWS was split into two parts).



The story, as much as is known, concerns Mr. Scamander, an eccentric, introverted wizard who arrives in New York at the Magical Congress of the United States of America with a special suitcase. When something befalls this unique case, magical authorities are sent after him, including the dangerous New Salem Philanthropic Society. Brimming with wizards, witches, senators and gangsters as well as a plethora of supernatural creatures and events, an exciting and enchanting time is promised!

I very much like the idea of Ms. Rowling expanding on the universe she's created, while stretching her imagination and creativity. I'm intrigued by her setting the events in the past, and in the US, an alien environment compared to the traditionally English boarding school of Hogwarts (despite their very untraditional academia.) I look forward to these new characters, hoping they'll be as fully-realized as those in the Harry Potter tales, and able to stand alone, and I eagerly wait to see how Ms. Rowling fares in this new medium.



The movie is to be released in 3D and IMAX, which promises lush visuals, and features Eddie Redmayne (Academy Award-winner for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING ) as Newt Scamander, as well as Katherine Waterson ( THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: HER ), Samantha Morton ( MINORITY REPORT ), Colin Farrell ( WINTER'S TALE ), Jon Voight ( DELIVERENCE ) and Ron Perlman ( HELLBOY ).

And while there is always danger in recommending something sight unseen, the pedigree of this work promises something – dare I say it? – magical for its audience. Come November 18, 2016, we'll all find out.

To view the trailer for the film, click on the image below.



 

 

The late Richard Matheson had always been a master of the horrific and terrifying, penning such classic novels as “I Am Legend”, “The Shrinking Man” and "Hell House”, and stories “Born of Man & Woman” and “The Children of Noah”. Along with Rod Serling and his good friend Charles Beaumont, he guided the original TWILIGHT ZONE series through several classic episodes including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, “The Invaders”, “Nick of Time” and “Night Call”, and in the 1960s he wrote for Roger Corman most of the Vincent Price Edgar Allen Poe films including THE HOUSE OF USHER, THE PIT & THE PENDULUM, and THE RAVEN.

In the 1970s, under producer Dan Curtis, he created legendary telefilms DRACULA (starring Jack Palance), THE NIGHT STALKER and THE NIGHT STRANGLER (featuring Darren McGavin as intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak), TRILOGY OF TERROR, and gave Steven Spielberg his first cinematic triumph with his script of DUEL, starring Dennis Weaver. Authors such as Stephen King, F. Paul Wilson, and Ramsey Campbell site him as an influence in their work.

But as the 1980s dawned, Mr. Matheson grew weary of the genre. In his own words,
"I was determined to fight against this image. Dammit, I never wrote 'real' horror to begin with! To me, horror connotes blood and guts, while terror is a much more subtle art, a matter of stirring up primal fears. But, by the mid-seventies, I had tired of playing the fright game. Scaring the hell out of people no longer appealed to me." (Although he wouldn't give it up completely; he still continued to turn out macabre short stories, novels and screenplays until the end of his career.) But he had become interested in exploring another side of the Dark Fantastic –the hopeful, the magical and awe-inspiring. He became deeply fascinated in life after death, and turned his interests towards producing a novel that would sum up all his research into the field.



The book was called “What Dreams May Come”, and it explored almost every aspect of the afterlife – ghosts, spiritualism, Heaven, Hell, reincarnation and angels, and touched on every belief system – Christianity, Buddhism, Eastern Philosophy – even atheism. Those who read it treasured it as a devoutly unique experience. Mr. Matheson states quite plainly in his introduction:

Because its subject is survival after death, it is essential that you realize, before reading the story, that only one aspect of it is fictional: the characters and their relationships.

With few exceptions, every other detail is derived exclusively from research.

For that reason, I have added, at the conclusion of the novel, a list of the books used for this research. As you will see, they are many and diverse. Yet, despite their wide variation with regard to authors and times and places of publication, there is a persistent, unavoidable uniformity to their content.

You would, of course, have to read them all to prove this to yourself. I urge you to do so. You will find it an enlightening--and extraordinary--experience.

(The book does contain an exhaustive reference index.)



Some years later, film producer Stephen Simon, who had already worked with Mr. Matheson in turning his novel “Bid Time Return” into the film SOMEWHERE IN TIME, starring Christopher Reeves and Jane Seymour, was given a copy of “What Dreams May Come", and became as enthralled as others who'd found the book fascinating and incredibly moving. He was determined to bring this to the screen as well, with Mr. Matheson's blessings, and he hired visionary director Vincent Ward (MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART and THE NAVIGATOR) and screenwriter Ronald Bass (RAIN MAN, SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, THE JOY LUCK CLUB) to accomplish this. The film was released in 1998, and starred Robin Williams, Annabella Sciorra, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Max Von Sydow, and it too was a wonder.

There are numerous differences between the book and film. In the novel, Chris Nielsen, the protagonist, is an writer, and the details of his career and make-up and relationship with his family is a thinly-disguised parallel to Mr. Matheson's own life. In the film, Chris is a pediatrician, and there is a different family dynamic. Indeed, twin tragedies early in the film lead to additional conflicts and character development original with the screenplay. Also, the book spends a great deal of time on earth, exploring the recently departed as ghosts or spiritual presences, unable or unwilling to cross over. (There is a large subplot in the opening chapters as Chris attempts to communicate with his family from the beyond through a spiritualist; this is excised in the movie.)



The book also goes into extreme detail as to the makeup of “Summerland”, the name given to what is essentially Heaven –how it is organized, what souls do there, how much of the geography is influenced by mental expectation and desires. In its place the film substitutes lush visuals and astonishingly vistas of classic paintings representing each individual's personal interpretation of the afterlife. (The film won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and was nominated for Best Art Direction; it also won the Art Directors Guild Award for Excellence in Production design.)

But the heart of both is the love story, the eternal devotion between Chris and his wife. And when she meets an unpleasant fate, Chris must risk the depths of Hell for his love; in one of the best and most breathtaking lines of the movie, he proclaims, “The only sin is not trying!”

The cast is uniformly excellent, from Ms. Sciorra's devoted and suffering Annie and Mr. Gooding's devoted friend (who harbors a deep secret of his own) to Mr. Sydow's grizzled, gruff angel. But the film firmly belongs to Mr. Williams, who gives a performance of great compassion, longing, humor and ultimately rare courage. (The movie no doubt achieves a deeper resonance with his tragic passing of the last few years.) There is no ending, only joy and discovery, and every moment is etched into Mr. Williams's performance.



The title of both the novel and movie come from “Hamlet”, in the “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.” Mr. Matheson spoke of the fitting legacy of the book (and by extension, the film) by saying. “I think What Dreams May Come is the most important (read effective) book I've written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death – the finest tribute any writer could receive.”

Indeed.


 

 

What might have been…?

Often that's asked in the community of the Dark Fantastic. Speculative Fiction has made a healthy subgenre of the “Alternate Universe” tale, in which Germany wins World War II (“The Man in the High Castle” by Phillip K. Dick), the South wins the Civil War (“Bring the Jubilee” by Ward Moore) or superheroes become commonplace in society before being outlawed (“Watchmen” by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins). But there are other subjects, more in keeping with the so-called ‘real world” that also inspire the question What Might Have Been…?

Take, for instance, the production of films. Any film student or fan of the art form can rattle off several instances where the planned version of classic entertainments didn't end up as the final product. Besides being a good source of trivia, they are intriguing bits of history that often have fans asking What Might Have Been…?

What Might Have Been Shirley Temple, Buddy Ebsen and W. C. Fields had starred in THE WIZARD OF OZ instead of Judy Garland, Jack Haley and Frank Morgan? What Might Have Been if Ronald Reagan and Anne Sheridan had starred in CASABLANCA instead of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman? What Might Have Been if Bela Lugosi has agreed to play the part of the Monster in FRANKENSTEIN instead of Boris Karloff, or if Robert Florey had directed instead of James Whale?

It's interesting to speculate; certainly the finished product would have been much different. Better? Worse? It's a moot point, but often fun to ponder.

Of course today the superhero film is very popular, and portraying these iconic characters has made stars of many previously unknown or little-known actors. These include the late Christopher Reeves as Superman, Michael Keaton and Christian Bale as Batman, Linda Carter as Wonder Woman, and Andrew Garfield as Spiderman. Currently Benedict Cumberbatch of the television series SHERLOCK fame is filming his version of DR. STRANGE, while CIVIL WARS is about to be released featuring the Marvel Avengers, including Iron Man and Captain America.

These movies have all done very well financially, and artistically they've ranged from successful to interesting to well-meant failures. And some may wonder if the performances might be at fault. What Might Have Been, say, if the classic film stars had taken on these roles?

These thoughts occurred to illustrator Joe Phillips, and he's come up with possible answers in a marvelous collection of faux film posters that may leave you sighing in frustration and enthusiasm about What Might Have Been…? They're too beautiful for a simple April Fools prank, but offer an enticing view of movies in another reality.



Take, for instance this version of DR. STRANGE, starring the wonderfully debonair William Powell as the Master of Mystic Arts, and the stunning Carole Lombard as his otherworldly sorceress love interest Clea. (Ms. Lombard had her own touch with the Dark Fantastic, starring in the film SUPERNATURAL.) As wonderful as Mr. Cumberbatch looks to be in the role, I think Mr. Powell (of THE THIN MAN and MURDER, MY SWEET fame) may have been well-nigh perfect.

Or consider Elizabeth Taylor as Wonder Woman, with a young Paul Newman as Steve Trevor. Or Marilyn Monroe as Wonder Girl. How about James Cagney as the Incredible Hulk, no doubt a bit more verbose than the current incarnations.

Or…consider these two posters (probably my favorites, if I were to have to choose):



With all due respect to the current personifications, could anyone be a better Bruce Wayne or Dark Knight than Cary Grant? Not to mention Katherine Hepburn as Selina Kyle, aka the Catwoman? And could Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson or Mark Hamill hold a candle to Danny Kaye as the Joker, with Shirley MacLaine as Harley Quinn? (Jared Leto and Margot Robbie need not apply.)

Perhaps one of the most perfect casting may be Buster Crabbe as Aquaman; not only was he an Olympic swimmer before he became an actor, but physically he would have been perfect, and a fine answer to those who think Aquaman a lesser hero than the Caped Crusader or the Man of Steel. (And who could be a better Queen Mera than red-haired Rita Hayworth?)



You can see the entire series by clicking HERE; no doubt you'll have your favorites as well, and turn your thoughts towards What Might Have Been…?

Joe Phillips is an extraordinary talent who's designed posters, calendars and other graphic projects. He's a splendid artist and caricaturist, and you can see his work on his official website by clicking on his wonderful interpretation of Vampirella below. Please note that because of his characters' near or total nudity, the images are meant for more mature viewers. You may also want to be aware that many of his images have gay themes and imagery, so your discretion is advised. I hope you enjoy his gifts as much as I!



 

 

With the sad passing of artist David Bowie on January 10, 2016, the world lost a true Renaissance Man, a writer, musician, singer, actor, and composer who not only achieved stardom but maintained it for an astonishing 50 years. He was able to do this by constantly redefining and exploring his work and personality, in ways that most performers are either unwilling or unable to do.

One way he was able to do this was keeping himself open to new experiences and opportunities. Much of his work touched on the genres that we hold dear; you can find SF and Fantastic themes in his Ziggy Stardust period with “Space Oddity”, “Starman”, “The Man Who Sold The World”, “Diamond Dogs” and many others, but when Hollywood came beckoning he welcomed the chance to engage in a new medium and collaborate with other talents.



Of course there was his marvelous turn in Jim Henson's classic LABYRINTH , where he not only starred as the iconic Goblin King, but also created the marvelous score that includes songs that remain some of my favorites from his oeuvre. But years earlier he enjoyed another sensation with his first motion picture, Nicholas Roeg's cult phenomenon THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH .

The movie is based on a novel by Walter Trevis, who also wrote an earlier classic character study for Paul Newman with THE HUSTLER . Although I read Mr. Trevis's novel many years ago, I'd never actually seen the film until recently, during the many tributes across the country and around the world honoring Mr. Bowie's achievements.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it concerns a man named Thomas Newton, who's actually an alien from a drought-stricken planet. He comes to Earth and begins building a financial empire based on several patents using advanced technology. He falls in love with a human woman and befriends several other individuals before attempting to return to his home, but the government, concerned that too much advanced technology in the marketplace will cause an economic catastrophe, capture and destroy him.



Obviously the tale is as much allegory as SF; Newton represents a pure and innocent intellect that is slowly corrupted by our world and society. The metaphor for falling to Earth applies both to the Icarus myth and angels, and Newton qualifies as either. The visuals by director Roeg are often quite stunning, including haunting glimpses of his alien planet and family. (His wife is played by Candy Clark, who also portrays the Earth woman he has an affair with.)

Where the movie runs aground, and the reason why I was left dissatisfied, is the narrative. We're never quite certain why Newton came to Earth, what his mission is, or why he needs to build a financial empire. He mentions a desert world of drought, but the ship he designs for his return isn't a tanker, but a small one-man vehicle. He acts in various ways that are never clearly explained, and the ultimate reason behind his eventual corruption is murky. Is simply being exposed to our culture and the people that populate our society enough to bring him down? Or is it the pleasures he encounters from alcohol, television and the forbidden love of another species. (His affair with the human woman, though poignant and understandable in context of his distance from his family, is never fully explicated; he still obviously loves them and thinks of them, sending them cryptic messages through televised commercials.)

The motives of his human contacts are also unclear. Rip Torn is presented as a companion to Newton, someone whose personality he senses long before meeting him as though he were drawn to him, but we're never presented with any reason why he should be engaged by Torn's character.  The motives of Torn and Ms. Clark are also suspect; after turning their backs on Newton's plight they are drawn into an affair with each other without any reason why they should be attracted to one another.



These criticisms made the movie interesting but ultimately a failure; it's one thing to be ambiguous, and entirely another to simply not bother to create a clear thread, relying instead on images to carry the emotional weight of the story. The movie seems more tailored to those who enjoy their films with extra substances to alter their consciousness, much as many did with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY . I find such concepts unappealing, and choose to enjoy a book, film or story with my consciousness clear and precise, but I suppose to each their own.

It's a surprise and a shame, because Mr. Roeg's other excursion into genre, the 1973 Horror classic DON'T LOOK NOW , based upon the novel by Daphne Du
Maurier , is an unqualified success, with Mr. Roeg's visuals meshing wonderfully with the enigmatic sense of dread that permeates the film. Perhaps the fault lies in MAN'S screenplay by Paul Mayersberg. His later collaboration with Mr. Bowie, MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE , was just as offbeat and spiritual in tone but much better realized. Perhaps the novel simply proved too much for Mr. Mayersberg to handle.



Still, whatever flaws there are in the film are not Mr. Bowie's responsibility. His Newton is wonderfully three-dimensional and assured, an alien personality masquerading as human in every movement and line. It's a remarkable performance, particularly considering it was his first role. Obviously cast because of his Ziggy Stardust connection, his Newton actually prefigures much of his later, more mature work, and for much of the film he even resembles his older self from the “Scary Monsters” era and later. And although their parts are often maddeningly enigmatic, Ms. Clark, Mr. Torn and Buck Henry also turn in marvelous performances. I wish they'd had a better script to perform against.

Mr. Trevis's novel offers far greater clarity; Newton's mission is more carefully draw out and detailed, and the nature of his betrayal more relevant to the political times. The novel, like the film, is in many ways a product of its generation, and is as much allegory as SF, but it offers an interesting contrast to the movie, and Mr. Trevis's writing is most engaging. I recommend it to anyone who liked the movie (or even loved it) but found some of it as puzzling as I did.



Just before his passing, Mr. Bowie completed work on a new musical titled LAZARUS , which is actually a sequel to THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH . It opened December 7, 2015 to mixed reviews, but critics universally praised performer Michael C. Hall, late of DEXTER , for filling the shoes of Mr. Bowie as Newton. Both his acting and singing recall Mr. Bowie's best work, and the music uses new material as well as classic songs such as “The Man Who Sold the World”, “Heroes” and “Changes” . You can read a review of the show HERE; tickets are still available for what promises to be an intriguing if not completely successful work. (Much like the film it's based on.)

It's fascinating that, despite his long and varied career, Mr. Bowie is still recognized from his first role, and the film still touches a chord within many viewers. The late Roger Ebert re-reviewed the movie when it was released in a restored Director's Cut on Blu-Ray, and I'll let him have the final word on this maddening, visionary effort. You can find his thoughts HERE.

 

 

Every year during the December holidays I mention the fact that Christmas has always been the traditional time for ghostly tales and doings. Here on the Lost Coast where I've been haunting the past several years that's become a given, although I still remember the initial astonishment, mirth and slight resistance to the idea; many would laugh because they thought I was joking, while others thought I was completely off base in my assertions.



In fact, when I first performed one of my Christmas shows and saw the huge crowd gathered in Old Town Coffee & Chocolates (with many more listening camped out on the sidewalks) I was delighted and absolutely astounded. Obviously I'd touched a chord among the seasonal celebrants, because to this day my Yuletide events are even better attended than my Halloween ones. Usually in June or July, when I'm at another venue (probably my campfire stories) I'm asked, “Are you doing a Christmas show again this year?”

(I can't be entirely sure of what it is that draws the audiences into the Christmas shows more than the October one; certainly there are myriad reasons. I suspect one might simply be that it's expected of me to be out and about at Halloween, while Christmas offers more of a special time.)



Be this all as it may, the idea of Christmas ghost stories and celebrations have begun to spread across the United States and take hold as they had in the past. (I urge you to look up the lyrics to the song “It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” to verify my statement; I've printed them here in the past and won't do so ow, but you can research it yourselves.) Some of this is definitely the emerging popularity of Krampus, the legendary Christmas demon and assistant to Santa Claus, a popularity that saw its nadir this year with the release of the theatrical film. But Krampus Night celebrations have been growing in many cities such as Bloomington, IN, Philadelphia, PA and Portland, OR, and haunted attractions that cater to Halloween enthusiasts have been opening their doors for December events as well, particularly Castle Blood in Monessen, PA, Chamber of Horrors NY in Hauppauge, NY, 3Haunts Xmas Scream in Shepherd, TX, Fear PDXmas Haunted House in Portland, OR and Sinister Pointe Haunted Attraction in Brea, CA.

I'm very pleased to be at the forefront (at least here in Northern California) of this new macabre renaissance (although I also spoke of it while I was wandering the east Coast many years ago), but as I've also stated this idea didn't originate with me; Christmas as a ghostly event goes back to the old times in the Celtic lands of England, Ireland and Scotland, just as the Krampus celebrations began in the Northern European countries. In fact, many countries have their own versions of the ghostly and ghoulish to accompany and counterpoint the sweetness and good-fellowship of the Christmas Season.

Here is a link to an article that appeared two years ago, just as some background to my claims. Click on the image below to read it.



I quibble with one of its conclusions: Ireland and Scotland certainly celebrated the macabre Yuletide as much as England, although the religious aspects touched upon by the Pagan and Wiccan celebrations of Samhain and Beltane do dovetail with All Hallows Eve. But in 2011 a wonderful Irish haunted attraction was prepared especially for the month of December; those who witnessed it testify to its fierceness and terror.

As it so happened, this year saw a plethora of articles and stories about the Christmas Ghost Story phenomenon. Of course, many of them arrived too late for me to incorporate into my December essays, but as the New Year begins and the chill outside of a long winter holds sway, I don't believe you'll begrudge me if we take one final look at the idea of a Ghostly Christmas. After all, as Jerome K. Jerome once said, “It is always Christmas Eve, in a ghost story.” (And he would know; his collection of short stories “Told After Supper” are interlinked humorous tales about Yuletide hauntings.)

First, from British author Neil Snowdon, editor behind Spectral Press, who publish a Christmas Ghost Story Annual each December, asked five Horror authors for a list of some books that they considered perfect for curling up with on a cold winter's night. Some are collections: John Connolly recommends “Collected Ghost Stories” by M. R. James (who may be the greatest ghost story writer of all, in my humble opinion), and Jonathan Rigby “Night Terrors: the Ghost Stories of E. F. Benson” . Steven Volk and Stephen Laws suggest two novels: Ray Cluley's “Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow” and Peter Straub's wonderful “Ghost Story” , respectively. And Kim Newman finishes the list with a collection of Charles Addams macabre cartoons, “Happily Ever After” . You can click on the image below to read their reasoning and see other suggestions.



On another blog, Oren Grey discusses the tradition and suggests for short stories that offer some terrifying moments to stop your Christmas celebration in its tracks. These include stories by (again) M. R. James and E. F. Benson, as well as A. M. Burrage and William Hope Hodgson. All of these are fine authors of the unnatural who enjoyed the Christmas ghostly ambiance. (Mr. James used to write a new ghost story every year and read them at the holiday gatherings he'd host.) Click on the image below to explore this eerie foursome.



At the website “Movie Morlocks”, author R. Emmet Sweeney takes a different tact, drawing on the BBC's tradition of broadcast specially made short Horror films for the holiday under the collective title GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS. The article provides a fine background on the history of these programs (along with some marvelous pictures) and details some of their best episodes. Click on the image below to read more.



Finally, Keith Lee Morris of the UK Independent newspaper offers this superb article on winter's influence on the ghost story, drawing on Mary Shelly's “Frankenstein” , Shakespeare's “A Winter's Tale” and Henry James's “The Turn of the Screw” , among others, to explore why the long, dark chilling nights provide such exquisite fodder for the Uncanny. Click on he image below and enjoy.



I hope you find these essays and thoughts and intriguing and illuminating as I. And I rust that next Christmas, your dreams may be spun from darker material than sugarplums.

Season's Greetings, my Friends



 

 

It's that time of year again: The tree is decorated and sitting in the corner of the living room, the lights are strung all about the outside of the house and burning brightly, the mistletoe hangs in the archway, a devil is stealing your naughty children…

All right, perhaps that's not the way you're celebrating, but with the appearance of the film KRAMPUS this year and its depiction of the traditional aide to St. Nicholas, perhaps some macabre merriment is in order. And if you have friends or family with a taste for the Dark Fantastic, I'm again recommending some splendid gifts for the holidays that they might treasure. Some of these are quite unique and unavailable from your local retail establishment, so shop early!

Let's begin with the creations of an extremely talented sculptress and artist who goes by the moniker Wood-Splitter Lee (her actual name is Lee Cross). She creates very lifelike animals and fantastic figures of faerie and myth, all one-of-a-kind, and offers them online in her EBay Auction Adoptions. No two are alike, and none are mass-produced; each one is a unique and original creation that is only available until sold. (Some of them are posable, some are puppets, and some are figures; you can find each a complete description with each. ) You can click on her Deviant Art page HERE to see some of her past efforts, and can access her online auctions HERE . The images below give you some indication of her talents; they are indeed extraordinary.




If you are a connoisseur of unusual timepieces, you may enjoy this coffin clock's vintage design along with its Halloween face depicting a vampiric Jack O'Lantern. The clock is the work of Winter's Asylum, and features a wood-grain texture that includes six ‘handles' for pallbearers. At the time of this posting only one Halloween clock is still available, but you'll want to look over their other coffin clock designs, all equally lovely. You can access their Etsy store by clicking on the image below.



If your intended is a fan of the Universal Monsters, have I a gift for you! It's rather expensive, but I believe well worth the cost: a collection of new original prints by artist Nicolas Delort (whose tribute to IT'S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN was featured in October's Twilight Gallery) paying homage to the classic films of Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney and more. There are seven prints featuring Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, The Creature from the Black lagoon, and the Bride of Frankenstein. All are done in the etched-line pen & ink stylings of Mr. Delort, and all are magnificent. (Don't take my word for it; look at DRACULA below, then click on the image to access the Dark mansion store where the prints are sold. Make certain to enlarge them so you can capture every detail.)



If you're looking for art of a different nature and much less expensive, may I recommend the beautiful cut-paper silhouette work of Nancy Michalak. Working from her studio in Cumberland Center, ME, Ms. Michalak creates cards, pendants and prints with a particular penchant for the Halloween Season. If you don't see exactly what you want in her online store, she will create custom work on commission to your specifications. Click on the image below to take you to her Etsy Store, and when you're done browsing her October line, do peruse her complete catalogue.



While we're shopping through Etsy, take a look at this wonderful glassware art by Orion Oddities, sculptors and artists of singular talents, creating original pieces of bottle art, pewter and clay, everything from a Cthulhu ashtray to a Basket Cat Poison Bottle, from vintage SF Ray Guns to a fir wood-carved Ouija Board (which I don't recommend, but it's lovely to look at, and in the end it's your funeral). I'm particularly taken by the Lovecraft-inspired bottle pictured below; you may click on the image to take you to their catalogues. (They will also do custom commissioned pieces upon request).



Nigel Kneale is an unsung figure in the Dark Fantastic. The creator of Professor Quatermass and a pioneer in television and film fantasy (with his teleplays “After Barty's Party” and “The Stone Tapes” considered the most frightening tales ever put on the small screen, and his “Quatermass and the Pit” the classic Hammer Horror film 20 MILLION YEARS TO EARTH ). Recognition and a fitting tribute is long overdue, but with “We Are The Martians” by Spectral Press, this oversight has finally been corrected. Featuring essays and appreciations by authors such as Stephen R. Bissette, Tim Lucas, Neil Snowden, Kim Newman, and Stephen Volk, along with an unpublished screenplay by Mr. Kneale, this is a very rare treat for all fans of Mr. Neale's brand of magic.



Perhaps your friend is a collector of figures from film and television. If he's a fan of the classic comedy YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN , he'll no doubt enjoy these representations of Victor Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk-en steeen”) Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor”) and the Monster (pronounced…well, you know…). Designed like the film in glorious noir black & white, the characters are the creations of Funko, who have a long line of similar memorabilia. Enjoy browsing their selections for other gift ideas, including figures from GHOSTBUSTERS and SHAUN OF THE DEAD.



I would imagine that none of you know of any naughty children this time of year. Of course not. But should any come to your attention, or if your child would simply like a special one-of-a-kind gift from another spectral creature (besides Yours Truly) they would probably thrill to a personal letter from Krampus the Christmas Devil himself! Created by Ginger Nielsen of the Bedlam Supply Company, each letter is personalized for the individual child, reminding them to be good – or else! Printed on card stock and illustrated with vintage images of Krampus, this is a truly unique gift that may just inspire youngster to forgo bad behavior – at least for a little while.



If you're looking for a little more Krampus for your holiday, you might want to purchase this beautiful hand-made ornament of His Wickedness. Made from resin, hand-painted and sold through “Rue Morgue” magazine's “Needful Things” store, this should brighten anyone's tree. But be warned; he may intimidate the other decorations.



And there you have it, my Friends; more than enough recommendations to surround the largest Christmas tree. Enjoy your holidays, whichever ones you celebrate, and I look forward to seeing you all in the New Year. That will be the best possible present I could receive!

 

 

In many ways I am a retiring sort of spectre. On one hand, I understand that my human companions want to know where I'll be appearing so that they can come see my performances, but on the other hand I sometimes feel foolish and a bit embarrassed about promoting myself. It often feels like boasting or self-aggrandizement.

Still, I recently conducted a fascinating interview with a local talk show that I wanted to share with you. The show is called OUT HERE IN THE REDWOODS, and is produced by Belinda Perkins-Brooks and hosted by Denise Ryles. The two of them wanted to explore the art of storytelling, and decide to invite several different storytellers with different styles and goals onto the show for a conversation about and examples of their crafts. (My companion Paul Woodland, who often performs with me at Halloween and Christmas, was one of the other guests.)

Of course, my interview concerned the ghost story. I was delighted to take part in the interview. Ms. Ryles asked some very penetrating and illuminating questions on the history of the Dark Fantastic, its roots in storytelling and what makes for a good macabre and frightening experience. I always enjoy discussing the craft, and had a splendid time.



Then to my surprise, those involved in the program decide that 30 minutes wasn't enough time to properly examine ghost stories, and asked if I'd tell some tales in a more appropriate setting. We ventured out to the Ferndale Cemetery, one of my favorite places here on the Lost Coast, and filmed my stories against the backdrop of crypts and grave markers.

(As an aside, the Victorian village of Ferndale is a small own approximately 25 minutes south of my crypt in Eureka, CA. It has been the backdrop for several other Hollywood productions, including THE MAJESTIC. But most notably it was the location chosen to represent Stephen King's town of Jerusalem's Lot, Maine, in the television miniseries adaptation of ‘SALEM'S LOT. I always feel most at home there!)

I present to you both segments of the show; I will be archiving them on my VIDEO Page after this month. I thought you might like hear of how I plan a ghostly tale, and then see the results. (Think of it as a TED Talk of spookiness.)

First, the interview segment, along with a PSA that I recorded for the group concerning the website www.patreon.com, which supports contribution to the arts. Click on the image below to see the discussion.



And some of my favorite ghost stories for your entertainment. Click on the image below and enjoy!



I hope, in a small way, that this demonstrates the form and techniques of storytelling, and encourages many others to try their hand at the form. I enjoy listening to others tell as much as I enjoy telling myself, and I look forward to hearing you tell a tale some day!

To see the other storytellers in the series, click on the link HERE.

 

 

This Halloween arrives with a touch of melancholia at the news of the passing of writer/director Wes Craven . Recognized as one of the pioneers of modern Horror, he left this mortal coil on August 30th.

I must confess that I am not as huge or overall a fan of Mr. Craven's work as others. I admired more than enjoyed his debut, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and recognized (as did critics such as Roger Ebert) what he was attempting to do in that time of political and social unrest, much as Mr. Romero with his NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I didn't appreciate THE HILLS HAVE EYES on its initial release, although I've come to like it enormously and consider it a classic alongside THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. I thought DEADLY BLESSINGS was a marvelously atmospheric look at rural religious fanaticism and social schisms, one of his finest efforts. I didn't particularly care for SCREAM, although I agree that it reinvigorated the genre in the 1990s (and in truth Mr. Craven's direction is top-notch; my quarrel is more with Kevin Williamson's smug, self-referential-and-satisfied screenplay); in fact I think SCREAM 2 is actually superior as a film and sequel.



Michael Berryman in THE HILLS HAVE EYES


I haven't seen THE SERPENT & THE RAINBOW or THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, although I know both films have their admirers. The less said about DEADLY FRIEND and THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2, the better, but I enjoyed SWAMP THING as a fun romp, although it didn't come close to the artistic ambitions of its source comic material.

Which leaves us with NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, in my opinion one of his best and most visceral films and one of the best of the 1980s. The creation of supernatural serial killer Freddy Krueger aside (and that creation alone would secure Mr. Craven's reputation and legacy), the movie is a fantastically realized look at guilt and the folly of retribution, as well as a visually ecstatic and pointed examination of the power and reality of the dream state.



Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in the original
(and best) NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET


NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was greeted with well-deserved kudos from audiences and critics alike on its initial release, and Robert England (one of the greatest meldings of actor and role in the Dark Fantastic, set alongside Boris Karloff as the Monster and Bela Lugosi as Dracula) became a cult icon. Even the flawed ending (forced on Mr. Craven by the studio; I prefer his original, much more subtle conceit) couldn't undo the tour de force of his creation. Others would take over as the sequels went on and diluted the power of the original premise, and Mr. Kruger would never again be as lean, awesome and terrifying.

(And although I enjoyed the third Installment DREAM WARRIORS, it's no secret that the film was meant to be much darker and Mr. Craven's vision was subverted. I did like the NEW NIGHTMARE film very much; although it too suffered some from being a bit too polished and too far removed from the rough, stark, low-budget grittiness of its source material, it was an honest attempt to examine the mythology of Horror and the act of creativity on the audience.)

As should be evident from above, Mr. Craven was a serious filmmaker, well aware of the subtext in many of his works and conversant in the language of cinema. (Just as two examples, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was a modern interpretation of Ingmar Bergman's THE VIRGIN SPRING, and THE HILLS HAVE EYES was based upon the legends of Sawney Bean and his murderous clan from the 15 th century.) He also seemed to have a down-to-earth sense of humor about himself and his work, and a genuine respect for the Dark Fantastic.



Ernest Borgnine in DEADLY BLESSING


But I've always had a feeling that Mr. Craven wanted more than to be known as a “Horror Director” from his various interviews (I had the same sense about John Carpenter). One of his favorite films was a mainstream movie MUSIC OF THE HEART, about a school teacher instructing inner city youths in the violin. The film didn't do as well at the box office as his genre efforts, and he felt disappointed in that.

And I believe none of his films showed the depth of sensitivity and humanity that infused his work on the 1980s TWILIGHT ZONE revival. His episodes remain not only a high point of his own career but some of the best remembered moments of the show; they can take their place beside the best episodes of the classic series without any self-consciousness, and I recommend them highly and unreservedly. (You can see them by purchasing the 1980 series or renting it from Netflix.)

These episodes include:



“Shatterday” – based on Harlan Ellison's classic short story, a man confronts his better self when a strange occurrence splits him into two separate individuals. Although not the best of the episodes, it features a stunning and measured performance by Bruce Willis.



“A Little Peace and Quiet” – A housewife discovers a pendant that allows her to stop time for intervals, bringing calm to her hectic life. But when a tragedy occurs beyond her control… Melinda Dillon again gives a powerful performance, and the ending is stunning.



“Dealer's Choice” – An all-star cast – Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, Garrett Morris, Barney Martin and Morgan Freeman – carry a comic sinister tale of the Devil dropping in on a weekly neighborhood card game to gather more recruits for Hades. This is a splendid episode that amply demonstrates Mr. Craven's ability to direct performers in more than fearful situations.



“Wordplay” – A modern classic of Dark Fantasy, and one of the revival's best episodes. A man played by Robert Klein discovers that language is changing throughout the day, and familiar words suddenly have different meanings. An amusing premise becomes taut and filled with menace under Mr. Craven's sure guidance.



“Her Pilgrim Soul” – Another modern classic, another one of the best (if not the best) of the new episodes, this strange love story has depth of feeling and emotional payoff that is rich and may surprise fans of Mr. Craven's other work. It is a truly special piece of film, with letter-perfect performances by Kristoffer Tabori, Anne Twomey, Gary Cole, Wendy Girard and Danica McKellar. You'll never forget it.

Sadly, we'll not see any more work by this artist on either the large or small screen, and we're the poorer for it. Thank you so much, Mr. Craven, for some unforgettable moments and memories, and Godspeed.



 

 

I've found, by and large, that my very young companions are extremely fascinated by the dark and unnerving. Gather a group together for a evening of pizza or games, or for a sleepover, and sooner or later the conversation will turn to scary stories, with the intent to be as gruesome as possible in every telling.

You may find this difficult to believe, that your cherubic tots would have a penchant for the bloodthirsty, but I'll have to ask you to trust me on this; I've witnessed it time and again. When I begin a n evening's performance for the very young, often at the local library or around a campfire, my first query is: what kind of story would you like to hear? Funny? Sad? Scary? And without hesitation, the answer calls back loudly, “Scary! REAL scary!”



(I try and keep all my tales age-appropriate; after all, I want to give my young friends a sense of dread, not fill them with a week's worth of nightmares. Still, at times I'll be telling a more adult and intense tale and discover much later that little ears perked up and hung on every word.

I had a small friend named Katie who, each time she came to hear me, would like clockwork ask if I'd tell a special story, one of her favorites. The tale? “Drip…Drip…Drip…”, one of  my more ghastly and graphic efforts. She adored it. I did my best to please her, but warned her if there were too many small ones in attendance we'd have to wait for another time…)

Once they've learned a good scary story, nothing delights a youngster more than sharing it with their friends, practicing their own storytelling abilities and testing their own skills at riveting and terrifying an audience. Young ones have been known to pour over books looking for just the right story to appropriate and make their own, often adding details to make the story even better. (For that, read more frightening.) One splendid source of material is the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series of short stories, published by Harper Trophy, written and edited by Alvin Schwartz and, most especially, illustrated by Stephen Gammell.



The series consists of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”, “More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” , and “Scary Stories 3 More Tales to Chill your Bones”. The stories, like many of my own efforts, range from campfire tales handed down from generations ago, old local legends, modern urban myths, and macabre songs and silly (and scary) rhymes. Mr. Schwartz has assembled the books with care, providing a terrific index of the source material and outlining questions and concerns that teachers or parents may encounter. I recommend the indexes for the adult readers as much as the actual narratives.

Each story is short, to the point, and sharp, like a well-told joke; the punchline should be the scream or shiver. What the works may lack in character development or sophistication they more than make up for in effect, and ofttimes that's the key to a well-told shocking short ghost story in the first place – the final moment or image that leaves the strongest impression.



One thing that has made the book famous – or at times infamous – is the artwork by Mr. Gammell; as you can see by these examples, he pulls no punches in presenting the bleak macabre. Indeed, some parents and groups have complained about the books because of the “upsetting” illustrations. Balderdash. I won't recap what I've talked about on my THOUGHTS & REVERIES Page this month, except that I find them deliciously atmospheric, and to note that youngsters find them fascinating and perfect for a scary story collection. (Many who read the books as youngsters rave about the pictures as adults – even if they were frightened by them.)

In summary, there's a wealth of material here for budding raconteurs to practice their craft. Perhaps some will choose to pursue it passionately, and I'll be sharing a stage with them at a future event. Or perhaps they'll simply pass a warm summer night before bedtime, or a cold, rainy autumn afternoon. Either one is most satisfactory. And with Christmas and Halloween coming (the time for sharing ghostly tales) my young friends may be inclined to seek out other sources as well.

For instance…have you heard the one about…?


 

 

Forty years ago, filmmaking changed, some for the better, mostly not. (In my opinion, of course.) But the change came about because of the astonishing success of a film that, at least during production, had failure written over every inch of it.

The director was young, only 27. He had worked extensively in television, doing episodes of several series as well as an occasional made=for-television film. He'd had terrific success with one particular TV movie, and that garnered him notice at the studios and a chance to direct a feature film. That movie failed at the box office, but in the interim he was hired to film an adaptation of an exceptionally successful popular novel.

He made the decision to film the novel on location instead of in the studio, for realism. This decision was the cornerstone of the difficulties that followed. The movie was a suspense/Horror/adventure film with half the story taking place on the ocean. Filming at sea with actual boats is an excruciating exercise; carefully calculated shots and scenes are at the mercy of changing currents and weather conditions, constant tidal actions, damage to equipment from moisture, salt and other elements, and the simple back-breaking attempts to move and secure scenery and camera placements on a surface that is constantly in motion.

To add the final nail in the coffin, the movie wasn't being shot off the coast of California, where there are studio facilities and technicians at a moment's notice (not to mention temperate weather conditions) but in the northeastern sea off Massachusetts, with all the adverse conditions the local fisherman have come to know and accept as part of their daily harsh existence. Trying to be creative during these conditions is more than daunting; it's an almost Bataan Death March-like daily battle.

The film also required extensive special effects for its success, involving the simulation of a living creature. Although much of the attempts were ingenious, the effects also fell prey to the brutal conditions of the location and never ever worked according to design. The film had to be reimagined on the spot, calling for constant script revisions while shooting was commencing, and the creature, which was supposed to be fully visible through much of the movie, had to now be hidden and only suggested through the use of various props – barrels, floating platforms, and other paraphernalia.



The actors, who'd committed to a two-to-three month shoot, found themselves stranded at the location for almost a year. (One actor, Robert Shaw, a citizen of Ireland, had to be flown out of the country on his days off to Canada or Jamaica so that his work visa would not expire. As it turns out, it did, and he owed a large sum of money to the IRS for this; however, by this time he was into overtime payments from the production because of having to extend his work commitment, so it all worked out…barely.) Most involved with the shooting thought the film would be a complete flop, and the young director feared he'd never work again.

Two things mitigated the disaster: first, Universal studio president Sidney Sheinberg considered the young Steven Spielberg an up-and-coming talent and protégé and unreservedly defended any attempts to have him replaced or to close down the picture. Second, the footage that came in to the studio for consideration was excellent, and even those with doubts could see the potential of the finished product. The shooting finished, post-production began, and before long everyone realized they had something very special before them.

But not until JAWS was previewed by audiences that screamed in terror, not before the opening where critics hailed the intense film as a modern masterpiece, not before the controversy erupted as to whether the movie was too frightening, and not until the box office exploded in unprecedented receipts did this movie change the entire ecology of Hollywood. The Summer Spectacular was born, and nothing has been the same since.

Steven Spielberg went on to become one of the most influential figures in modern cinema, on the same level with John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss became stars (Robert Shaw, sadly, made a few more films before passing away at age 51 in 1978), and Peter Benchley became a successful international novelist. And although all moved on to other great successes, all remembered JAWS as an extraordinary, horrendous, chaotic and ultimately rewarding experience different from anything else they ‘d been part of.



The movie is currently in rerelease across the country for its 40th anniversary. I saw it two years ago at a special local showing here on the Lost Coast at the Eureka Theater (where I recently saw the special viewing of Vincent Price's HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL) with a packed audience on a wonderfully large screen The film holds up wonderfully, just as tense, terrifying and exhilarating as before. In many ways I still think it's Mr. Spielberg's best picture, one of the few true examples where a directors talent, determination and creativity can shape a movie so completely.

And the fascinating thing is that, if the mechanical shark had worked according to specification, it would have been a completely different movie. The shark would have been seen throughout, more visible, like the dinosaurs in JURRASIC PARK, and it wouldn't have been anywhere nearly as effective as it is with its Hitchockian suggestiveness. The unseen menace, portrayed through misdirection and point-of-view shots, the images of the rough, vast sea with the horror lurking underneath, unseen and only imagined, are what make the movie such a visceral experience.

I hope you'll all get a chance to see it on the large screen and re-experience it (or enjoy it for the first time, my younger companions; it's well worth it – trust me!) And if you want to learn more about the behind-the-scenes struggle that proceeded this cinematic achievement, might I suggest “The JAWS Log”, a fascinating and enormously entertaining book about the production, written by Carl Gottlieb (who co-authored the screenplay with Mr. Benchley). He takes you through the writing, casting, location scouting, special effects travails and daily shooting on this remarkable movie, providing memorable and, in hindsight, hilarious anecdotes about the day-to-day frustrations on the set. (My personal favorite? “The Orca is apparently sinking.”)

It a perfect read for lounging on the beach over vacation, particularly for those who know it's still not safe to go back in the water…


 

 

“Cogito Ergo Sum” is the philosophical position of the great Rene Descartes. Translated from the Latin, it means “I think; therefore I am.” It's a potent definition of existence and life, and has been for several generations.

But does it still hold true? After all, computers think…or do they? Do they only calculate, or do they truly reason. And if their calculations are skillful, how can we determine the difference? That question is the heart of two excellent (but quite different) works of modestly-budgeted cinematic SF.

SF is certainly one of the best literatures to arena this debate; examining the human condition in the face of advancing technology is a classic archetype of the genre. I'm delighted that these two films took up the gauntlet, and did so with such success. Probably the boldest and most powerful example is Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A SPACE ODDYSSEY, and both EX MACHINA and ROBOT & FRANK can take their places proudly beside it.



EX MACHINA has the most obvious successor to Mr. Kubrick, in mood, tone and intent. It's cool and disturbing, the tension slowly ratcheting up scene by scene. It's the directorial debut of Alex Garland, the acclaimed author of the novels “The Beach” and “The Tesseract”, and was the screenwriter of 28 DAYS LATER and SUNSHINE, both for director Danny Boyle. This is an especially assured effort, with nary a misstep in its narrative or visuals; I look forward to more from Mr. Garland.

Sometime in the very near future (it could be the day after tomorrow, or the day after that) a young computer programmer named Caleb is invited to spend the week at the mountain retreat of his mysterious company owner Nathan. It's a lavish home completed isolated from civilization, both by its remote location and the security measures that protect the installation. For installation it is; in addition to being Nathan's home, it's his laboratory where, he tells an incredulous Caleb, he's developed the first true artificial intelligence. Caleb is introduced to Ava, a beguiling innocent with a human face and transparent, mechanized form. Caleb's week is to be spent in interviews with Ava to determine whether Nathan has succeeded, or if Ava is only “pretending” to be alive, “acting” sentient.

I can't tell you more about this film; the plot suggested above is just the starting point for a fascinating, eerie, heartbreaking and very human story with one character who may not be who she believes she is – or claims to be. The script is tight and literate, the direction spare and coolly appropriate for the story. The performances by Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, Oscar Isaac as Nathan, Sonoya Mizuno as Kyoko, a silent servant with her own secrets, and especially Alicia Vikander as Ava, are letter-perfect.



The limited budget is used exceptionally well; all the action takes place in one location with a small cast, but at no time does it feel that the movie is compromised for being frugal. The special effects involving Ava are breathtaking at first, then simply become part of the realism of the story. At no point do you feel you're only watching characters delivering scripted dialogue.

Long after the movie is over, you'll find yourself haunted by several scenes: the dance sequence, the interviews and confessions, the prototypes and the jaw-dropping finale. You'll never forget the experience, just as audiences have never forgotten the Star Gate, the discovery of TMA-1 beneath the lunar surface, and the murderous intentions of HAL. With all respect to THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON and MAD MAX FURY ROAD, this quiet, somber picture with a budget unable to pay for the catering on the other two summer films is, in my opinion, the best movie of the year; it will take another extraordinary to move this out of the highest place. Mr. Kubrick would look on it was respect and admiration, and not a bit of pride in its inspiration.

By contrast, ROBOT & FRANK is a romp, a delightful character study of a former cat burglar growing older and more infirm and relying on a house robot to attend to his needs. In a future where robots are commonplace, people take their presence in society for granted, with the exception of a sour, cynical man to whom the robot represents the unwelcome intrusion of change into his comfortable world.

But the robot's talents prove invaluable to Frank, who realizes it may be the best and most skillful partner in crime he ever had. And as the machine's training continues, and as Frank begins to depend on him more and more for his day-to-day care, the subject of emotion and feeling comes to the forefront. Is the robot truly becoming a friend, coming to care for Frank? Or is it simply programmed to react in a caring manner, and anything beyond that is anthropomorphism? (That' a fancy name for endowing non-human creatures with human qualities.) Needless to say, the question becomes more than academic by the film's conclusion.



As I watched this wonderful film, I thought it to be the greatest robot story that Isaac Asimov never wrote. It adheres completely to his celebrated Three Laws and, as with most of his tales, holds a mirror up before the foibles, frailties, tragedies and triumphs of humanity. I think he would have been very pleased with the results, and puffed up a bit with pride himself.

Frank Langella, the exceptional actor perhaps best known in the genre for his title role in the 1970s revival of “Dracula” on Broadway, and recreating it in the John Badham film in 1979, is perfect as Frank, a very human mixture of stubbornness, cantankerous pride and unspoken fear at the changing, strange world around him. He is battling Alzheimer's, and that struggle is at the heart of the film, both in his relationship with Robot and with his family. His son Hunter (James Marsden) and daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) portray a believable, honest mixture of concern for their father's health, frustration at his decline and refusal to acknowledge his limitations, and the self-centered thoughts of how his deterioration will adversely affect the quality of their own lives.

Susan Sarandon is compassionate and warm as a local librarian who's caught Frank's fancy, and the revelation of her terrible secret is a powerful moment in a completely emotionally engaging story, and Jeremy Sisto is terrific as a law enforcement agent who's had Frank in his sights for years, trying to puzzle out how the new robot fits into Frank's criminal agenda.



But the heart of the film – and heart is the key word, in all its connotations, is the growing friendship, real or assumed, between Frank and Robot. Peter Sarsgaard is the voice of Robot, and he is the flawless combination of calm, mechanical logic and sincere bafflement at the requests put forward and actions panned by his ward. At no point do you ever get the impression that Mr. Langella is acting opposition a special effect; Robot is real, as real and genuine as Ava, and his final act will both warm and distress you.

That's not to say the film deadly serious; it is filled with wonderful comic moments, such as Frank's training on the finer points of safe-cracking, and the absolutely hilarious “self-destruct” scene. You'll grow to love all the individuals, real and artificial, and follow their efforts to make the world a true home, safe and welcoming.

Both these movies ask us to explore “Cogito Ergo Sum”, and if there are no easy answers drawn from either of their allegories, and if we are left unsettled and searching for the philosophical implications in humanity's day-to-day existence, they they've accomplished their tasks heroically, with truth, beauty and high art. I only hope they never get lost in the sound and fury that is modern filmmaking; I truly hope they find the audiences they deserve.


 

 

I'm always suspicious of lists of books, movies, television shows and what-have-you that proclaim to be the (pick a number) greatest ANYTHING!, for a number of reasons, most primarily because critical analysis without sufficient history is a simple matter of personal tastes and prejudices.

There are certain films, books and television whose quality is universally acknowledged, but for the most part what is considered “The Best” of “The Scariest” is viewed through a highly subjective lens. (And this seems to be compounded on the Internet, where everyone, regardless of their critical stature or abilities, feel free to offer their individual two cents on every subject from most critically overlooked classic – a fair assessment – to the recent list of most overrated films of the last decade – overrated by whom? The person making the list? What scholarship have they? What resume can they offer to allow them to make that assessment besides “I hated this movie, so it's not worthwhile, and nobody else should like it either!”?)

I myself am not free of these prejudices. I perused a recent list of “Scariest Movie Scenes in Horror”, and noted that the infamous Dancing Doll sequence from DEEP RED was not included. I find that scene absolutely terrifying, and to not have it mentioned immediately denigrated the list in my mind. But who am I to judge? Many genre critics do agree with me, but really on a majority opinion can be a fallacious as standing alone in opposition to what the majority approves.

(And frankly, one other issue I have with these lists is the apparent youth of all involved. Ask most Internet critics to list their top ten Most Frightening Films of ALL Time, and you'll no doubt see a collection of titles starting roughly in the late 1960s, with nothing from the glorious Universal Studio days, no Hammer films, and not one Silent Cinema effort to be offered. And that's simply tunnel-visioned.)

But recently I came across an extraordinary list from the website Flavorwire, with their selections of the 50 Scariest Books of All Time, and I'm delighted to recommend it to you without reservation. Not because I necessarily agree with every book on the list, but because the judges seem to have made an honest effort to include selections not only from the Horror and Dark Fantastic genre, but outside the field as well. There are non-fiction works placed in the imaginary, and a true effort has been made to include books who've left a mark on the genre's history as landmark efforts as well as more contemporary pieces.

Many of the classic are here: “The Haunting of Hill House”, “The Turn of The Screw”, “Dracula” (but interestingly, not “Frankenstein”; perhaps the philosophical discussions in the novel overshadowed the fear generated, in the compiler's estimation) and “The Exorcist”. Most of the innovators of the field are represented: Stephen King, of course, but also Richard Matheson, Pater Straub, M. R. James, Arthur Machen, Clive Barker and Ray Bradbury, and, naturally, the two undisputed masters, Misters Poe and Lovecraft. Many of these have been turned into classic films (THE INNOCENTS, THE HAUNTING) with a few not terribly successful, artistically or commercially.

I'm delighted to see a number of non-Horror entries (this is, after all a list of the Scariest books, not the Scariest Horror books) such as “Johnny Got His Gun” and “Lord of the Flies”, and very happy to see Harlan Elison, Joe Hill, Jack Ketchum and Olivia Butler included. (Although I would have chosen Mr. Ellison's superb collection “Deathbird Stories”, and picked Mr. Simmons' s “The Song of Kali” over “Carrion Comfort”; many critics, including Mr. Ellison, have maintained “Song of Kali” is one of the finest Horror novels of the Twentieth Century. I would have chosen Mr. Harris's novel “Red Dragon” over “The Silence of the Lambs”; while “Lambs” is very good, “Red Dragon" is much more terrifying. And I don't know if “It” would be my choice for Stephen King; as good as it was I didn't find it his most terrifying. That would probably go to “The Shining”, “Secret Window, Secret Garden” or “1408”, but that's probably just personal preference.)

Do I agree completely with the list? No. Where is “Magic" by William Goldman? “Deliverance” by James Dickey? Where is a selection by Joyce Carol Oates? But I find it an excellent primer on the very best of Horror and Dark Fantasy, and a solid argument for what the genre is capable of at its very best. All of these books are more than worthy, and if someone new to our field wanted some suggestions on where to start in their tentative explorations I wouldn't hesitate to offer this list to them as recommended reading (especially to any young people wanting to know more about the genre apart from the latest FRIDAY THE 13TH or HALLOWEEN films.)

In the end, these fit the criteria of that story that I'm fond of repeating: in an unnamed art museum, a patron was looking at a work of Picasso as a guard stood by. After a moment, the patron turned to the guard and shook his head at the painting. “I just don't like it; it's terrible!”

The guard replied, “I'm sorry, sir, but history has already made its judgment on this work and deemed it worthy; now what is being judged is your reaction to the work.”

I've noted below by asterisk which books have my own personal recommendation as a favorite. I've also noted in each collection which particular classic short stories are included. You can read the original list on Flavorwire with their commentary by clicking HERE.



IT Stephen King*

PIERCING Ryu Murakami

THE EXORCIST William Peter Blatty*

GHOST STORY Peter Straub*

AMERICAN PSYCHO Bret Easton Ellis



HELL HOUSE Richard Matheson*

DRACULA Bram Stoker*

THE HANDMAIDS TALE Margaret Atwood

THE BEST OF H. P. LOVECRAFT H. P. Lovecraft*
(includes “The Rats in the Walls”, “The Outsider”*, “Pickman's Model”*, “The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Colour Out of Space”* and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”)

THE TURN OF THE SCREW Henry James*



HOUSE OF LEAVES Mark Z Danielewski

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE Shirley Jackson*

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS Thomas Harris

ROSEMARY'S BABY Ira Levin*

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR Jay Anson


THE TRIAL Franz Kafka

BOOKS OF BLOOD Clive Barker*

BLOOD MERIDIAN Cormac McCarthy

HEART-SHAPED BOX Joe Hill

CARRION COMFORT Dan Simmons



THE COMPLETE TALES & POEMS OF EDGAR ALLEN POE Edgar Allen Poe*
(includes “A Cask of Amontillado”*, “The Pit & the Pendulum*” “The Black Cat”*, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Masque of the Red Death”*)

DAWN Octavia E Butler

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN Lionel Shriver

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR Jack Ketchum*

THE PAINTED BIRD Jerzy Kosinski



THE WASP FACTORY Ian Banks

THE CIPHER Kathe Koja

LORD OF THE FLIES William Golding

THE RUINS Scott Smith

GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUITY M. R. James*
(includes “The Ash Tree”*, “Number 13”, “Count Magnus” and “Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad”*)



NAOMI'S ROOM Jonathan Aycliffe

THE RITUAL Adam Nevill

JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN Dalton Trumbo*

INCARNATE Ramsey Campbell

THE WOMAN IN BLACK Susan Hill



THE GREAT GOD PAN Arthur Machen

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK Alvin Schwartz*
(includes some of my favorite campfire-type stories that I tell myself, including “What Do You Come For”, “”The Girl Who Stood On A Grave”, “Room For One More”, “Aaron Kelly's Bones”, “The White Evening Gown”, and “Wait ‘Til Martin Comes”)

THE OCTOBER COUNTRY Ray Bradbury*
(includes “Skeleton”*, “The Jar”, “The Lake”, “The Small Assassin”*, “The Crowd”, “Uncle Einar”*, and “The Homecoming”*)

WHITE IS FOR WITCHING Helen Oyeyemi

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN John Ajvide Lindqvist



I HAVE NO MOUTH & I MUST SCREAM Harlan Ellison *
(includes the title story*, “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”*, “Eyes of Dust”, “Delusion for a Dragon Slayer”* and “Lonelyache”)

THE COLLECTOR John Fowles*

THE STORE Bentley Little

PENPAL Dathan Auerbach

IN COLD BLOOD Truman Capote*



SWAN SONG Robert R McCammon

THE WOLFEN Whitley Strieber*

THE HOT ZONE Richard Preston

THE KILLER INSIDE ME Jim Thompson

1984 George Orwell*

 

 

I'm always puzzled by why some films get a huge promotional push while others are left to fend for themselves. In this day of online streaming, pay-per-view, independent rentals and specialty art houses, there are simply too many movies to keep track of these days, and that's not counting the major releases in the corporate theater chains.

Naturally, you would assume that studios would do their best to see that all their efforts received the best possible chances of reaching their intended audiences, particularly if they cost a great deal of money or featured famous names. And yet, this isn't necessarily the case.

As an example, the film JOHN CARTER was incredibly expensive, and was the first live-action feature of Andrew Stanton, the creative force behind TOY STORY, FINDING NEMO, WALL-E and MONSTERS INC. You would think that would make the movie ripe for a huge promotional push, but it came and went through the theaters like quicksilver, with nary a mention of Mr. Stanton's past success, or exploited the potential fan base of those who first read the “John Carter of Mars” novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Why? There've been several reasons put forth, from a regime change at the studio that didn't want to promote its predecessor's work to over-reliance on pre-release publicity. The result was the same; few people saw it to make it profitable (even though it was a vastly entertaining and faithful translation of the beloved source material; I enjoyed in immensely.)

I was thinking about this phenomenon when I saw the new George Lucas release, the animated STRANGE MAGIC. I stumbled upon it before it left my local theater; it had arrived with absolutely no fanfare, and I became interested only after I saw a brief description in the local newspaper saying that the film was based on Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream”, one of my favorite of the Bard's works.

I was astonished that there was so little publicity for this delightful effort (at least here on the Lost Coast). Mr. Lucas, after all, has a fairly loyal fan base, owing to his modest efforts in some obscure art films known collectively as the STAR WARS trilogies and the INDIANA JONES series. His special effects company Industrial Light & Magic has had their hands in most of the major productions released worldwide. What I'm trying to convey is that this isn't a first attempt from some talented neophyte; this was GEORGE LUCAS! Why was this film so roundly ignored?

I can't answer the question definitively, obviously. I found it a charming, wonderful movie, perfect for a family audience. The animation is impressive, on the same scale as any Pixar production, and the music (for it is a musical) was pleasantly eclectic, using standards instead of original music, and featuring a wide variety of styles, from Bob Marley to ELO, Elvis to the Troggs, Bacharach and David to the Four Tops and Queen. Those who remember Mr. Lucas's work with AMERICAN GRAFFITI understand that he knows his way around a fine soundtrack, and all of us (the four of us in the theater) smiled, laughed, hummed and sang along and had a splendid time.

As to it being “based on Shakespeare's ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream'…” Ummm…well, say rather that it's inspired by “Midsummer”. Loosely inspired. Very loosely inspired. There are indeed faeries, and two faerie royalty, a king and princess, are feuding. And yes, there's a love potion that gets disastrously into the wrong hands, and a Puckish creature up to mischief (one of my minor complaints with the film is that he – she? it? – doesn't get near enough screen time.) And there is misunderstanding and vows of true, fickly love and it all works out romantically and humorously after some adventures. But there's equal parts “Twelfth Night”, “The Taming of the Shrew” and quite a bit of “Much Ado About Nothing”, with its battling protagonists who everyone knows should be in love.



A brief summation: the faerie princess Marianne has her heart broken by a faithless, suitor with his eye on Marianne's throne. She dedicates herself to become a warrior princess, which come in handy when her sister Dawn, a starry-eyed romantic, is captured by the Bog King, ruler of the darkest part of the forest. He kidnapped her as ransom, because someone made off with a forbidden love potion (it happened when the elf Sunny, who's loved Dawn from afar for a long while, stole the potion to make Dawn fall in love with him). Marianne races into battle against the Bog King, who's heart had been broken long before, and who, like Marianne, swears that he'll never love again. Of course, these two were made for each other, which is complicated because Dawn, under the effects of the potion, falls in love with the Bog King himself! (Whew! And that's just the beginning!)

As you as you can see by the synopsis, it is a very Shakespearean brew ( I think he would have approved heartily) of misplaced affections and vaudeville, enlivened by superb voice work from Alan Cummings (the Bog King), Evan Rachel Wood (Marianne), Elijah Kelly (Sunny), Kristin Chenoweth (as the Sugar Plum Fairy, creator of the potion) and Maya Rudolph (as Griselda, Bog King's mother, trying desperately to fix him up with an eligible young…er…lady…), all who do their own singing and keep the light as air plot suspended effortlessly.



And what singing! “Marianne” by the Four Seasons, “I'll Never Fall In Love Again”, the Four Tops “I Can't Help Myself”, Elvis Presley's “I Can't Help falling In Love With You”, and Queen's “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, just to name a very few, the film is wall-to-wall music and laughter, with villains, heroes and princesses all wearing their musical hearts on their sleeves. It's lushly romantic without being deadly serious or overly schmaltzy, hitting just the right note between keeping the young one's entertained with the shenanigans and the adults enjoying the tunes and clever dialogue. (As Dawn serenades Bog King with Nilsson's “Without You,” one of his troll subjects cries out, “No! I know this song! Here comes the high note!”)

My own favorite moment? As Marianne and the Bog King begin to realize their attraction and affection for each other, he invites her to tour the darkness to see its beauty. She accepts, and the ensuing flight, a duet sung to the film's title song by ELO, is rapturous, absolutely lovely.

Whatever criticisms maybe levelled at Mr. Lucas by fans for his shortcomings with his other films (notably the second STAR WARS trilogy and the final INDIANA JONES movie, which I enjoyed greatly but understand I am in the very small minority), I hope that the backlash won't keep people from enjoying a movie that might be supremely entertaining, as this gem certainly is. I congratulate Mr. Lucas and offer a hearty well done, and I don't think any will begrudge me their time spent enjoying STRANGE MAGIC. If so, I can only shake my head and mutter that famous admonition: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”


 

 

With very rare exceptions, I make it a point never to recommend anything in this space that I haven't seen, read or experienced personally. I know many of my human companions have come to trust my advice, and I take that responsibility very seriously. But this month, with a new year beginning, I'm going to make that exception and point you towards several films that I think deserve the spotlight.

There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that when you haunt a somewhat isolated region of the country, as I currently do, the potential of having more obscure independent features arrive at your local theater becomes problematic. Although the Lost Coast has gotten some wonderful films that were not issues in wide release (ANOTHER EARTH, ROBOT & FRANK and A SCANNER DARKLY, to name three), we don't have the same arthouse possibilities of the larger metropolitan areas (as the Bay Area or Portland does).

Secondly, the movies mentioned below have received marvelous word of mouth through the community of the Dark Fantastic, their stories and execution bringing praise and excitement (and some controversy, of course) that gives me a brash optimism about the future of our beloved genre. I read so many great things about these features and have lamented that I've been unable to view them. (Although they are apparently available for viewing on demand in many areas; this is a choice I've not been happy with in the past, preferring the theatrical experience to watching movies alone in my crypt. Still, beggars can't always be choosers...)

None of the movies below are remakes or reimaginings of previous works; none of them deal with the tired tropes of zombies or the nihilistic amorality of torture porn that has tarnished our field; all of them have been made (or are being made) by artists that want to expand the directions of Horror and actually say something, flex their artistic and imaginative muscles and reach for new heights beyond simply making money. (And needless to say, none of them are being released or created in the Hollywood studio system.)

Some of these movies have been before the public for some time; some are just being released now for the new year, and some are on the horizon, waiting for distribution or in the process of post-production. In any case, these are movies I think any serious fan or follower of our genre can embrace wholeheartedly, even if there are quibbles about their final degrees of success. They are original and daring, and point towards a promise that Horror and Dark Fantasy in the cinema is, pardon the expression under the circumstances, alive and well; literate, adult, and prepared to fill you with awe, terror and, in some cases, wonder.

You may click on the images to see the trailers for each film. Please be aware that most of these are quite disturbing and meant for mature viewers; as always parental guidance is strongly advised for my younger friends.

THE BABADOOK

Let's begin with one that has been greeted with near universal acclaim. Besides being one of the most talked about Horror films of the past few years, it is written and directed by Jennifer Kent, and with February again being Women in Horror month, is a fierce repudiation that women simply can't do Horror as well as men. No one who's seen THE BABADOOK accepts that dismally lame argument any longer. I've deliberately learned nothing about the movie beyond what the trailer offers so I can be completely surprised when I finally see the movie; you might be wise to do the same.



TUSK

Kevin Smith is know primarily as a writer/director of comedies, such as CLERKS, CHASING AMY and MALLRATS, but he is also known as a huge comics and SF fan, and has written several graphic novels and genre films (unproduced). I thought his first Horror film, 2011's RED STATE, was gripping and disturbing, with a sure hand for visceral moments of terror. That film stayed clearly in the 'natural' column of Horror, its fright coming from purely human brutality and madness. TUSK , his followup, has both feet clearly in the Dark Fantastic, and no less a discerning critic than my friend Shane Dallmann (one of the best and most knowledgeable in the genre, writing for, among other publications, “Video Watchdog”) has called TUSK the best Horror film of 2014.



HOUSEBOUND

When you don't get along with your family, being sentenced to house arrest can seem like Purgatory. When you're sentenced in a haunted house...or is it? Can't everyone just try to get along? HOUSEBOUND has gotten raves from genre favorites such as Peter Jackson, and was a huge success at this past summer's Spooky Movie Festival in Washington DC.



EXISTS

THE BLAIR WITH PROJECT still stands, in my opinion, as one of the high marks in filmed terror in the past fifteen years. (Fifteen years! Time flies when you're afraid...) The creators have had individual successes with their projects since then, but EXISTS takes the viewer back into the woods and the 'found footage' subgenre. Plus, living in Sasquatch country myself, there's more than a little interest in how this dovetails with the actual legends, although terror is the primary force herein. (And a nod to WILLOW CREEK , another found footage film written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, filmed here on the Lost Coast, which begins as a comic lark and descends quickly into uneasiness...)



A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT

If there's one movie I'm most excited to see above all others, it would be this one. Another woman writer/director, and an Iranian woman, creates a film about a male dominated society and culture where women are kept in the shadows and subservient...all but one unafraid to walk home along at night. This is what the Dark Fantastic does better than any other genre: shine a light on humanity and examine it in a fresh and iconic manner.



CRIMSON PEAK


Guillermo Del Toro makes two types of films: huge Hollywood blockbusters (HELLBOY, PACIFIC RIM, MIMIC) which, with the exception of HELLBOY I haven't enjoyed excessively, and smaller, personal films (CHRONOS, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE, PAN'S LABYRINTH) that I find masterful, particularly the latter, one of the finest dark Fantasy films ever created. It's too soon to tell what CRIMSON PEAK will be, but early word is its a return to his more intimate filmmaking, which is always welcome.



STARRY EYES

How far would you go to succeed at your dreams? What if your dreams involved show business, traditionally known as a cannibalistic business that uses people until there is nothing left of them. STARRY EYES is a character study and another Horror film allegory about society and the personal costs of stardom. It's dark, graphic and uncompromising, which is what Horror should be, but it 's filled with humanity and loss. (And Alexandra Essoe has received raves for her courageous performance.)



HORNS

Based on a novel by Joe Hill (the son of an extremely famous Horror writer living in Maine who is carving out a name for himself in the Horror genre) and starring an adult Daniel Radcliffe (fast becoming one of the finest actors today), HORNS is another dark allegory, not entirely Horror, but certain Dark Fantasy. A young man undergoes a dramatic transformation while investigating the death of his lover, and a town's secrets are thrust into the light.



ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE

They're vampires. That's not giving away any secrets; this is known almost from the beginning, but ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE isn't concerned with suspense or fear. This is an examination of the myth; like INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, it postulates that life can go on far too long, and humans weren't meant to be immortal. Some found it stylish and intriguing, more a character piece; others found it slow and boring. I think it looks dark and lush, and with a cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and John Hurt, how can you go wrong?



HONEYMOON

How much do you really know about the person you've married? Courtship is far different than living together, and when couples are finally alone with their thoughts and fears... On their honeymoon, isolated and far from civilization, the new wife disappears, sleepwalking in the woods...or so she claims. She returns, but...different. Like others on this list HONEYMOON is allegory, exploring relationships and secrets with the trope of the Dark Fantastic into a truly unsettling piece.



THE HOUSE AT THE END OF TIME


The Bad Place is an iconic theme in Horror - “The Shining”, “The Haunting of Hill House”, “Burnt Offerings” - and this new film is rife with dark pasts and mysterious events that plague a woman through her life. But time also seems out of tilt in this domain, and as the mystery deepens about the events of 30 years ago, universal forces converge. The film is the debut effort of Alejandro Hidalgo, and he directs with a sure hand.



IT FOLLOWS

What starts as a typical woman-in-peril slasher film becomes something darkly different; a parable for sexually transmitted disease? Perhaps. Like CABIN IN THE WOODS, the film takes the normal Horror conventions and twists them into a puzzle and a thriller that grows increasingly hopeless. Some found the tale derivative, others refreshing, but all agree it's very frightening.



And finally, some films to watch for as 2015 draws to a close:

KRAMPUS

There have been several films about Krampus, the Christmas Devil and companion to Santa Claus, but this one catches the eye because of its pedigree: it's directed by Michael Dougherty, who created the now classic 2007 Halloween anthology film TRICK 'R TREAT. There's no trailer available yet, but the image below leads me to suspect that they have the right frame of mind for a macabre Christmas merriment.



TALES OF HALLOWEEN

Another anthology film without a trailer (it's still in the planning stages) that gets my attention because of those involved. It will feature 10 individual stories filmed by ten different directors, all tied together on Halloween in a quiet town when things go very wrong. Ten stories for a two hour movie seems a bit unwieldy to me, but the talent involved, including Neil Marshall (THE DESCENT), Paul Solet (GRACE), Joe Begos (ALMOST HUMAN) and John Skipp (award winning Horror author turned filmmaker) make it intriguing.



XX

Intriguing is the word for this new anthology currently being completed; it's an all woman directed piece featuring four short tales helmed by Karyn Kusama (JENNIFER'S BODY ), Mary Harron (AMERICAN PSYCHO), Jennifer Lynch (SURVEILLANCE, BOXING HELENA), and Jovanka Vickovic (THE CAPTURED BIRD, THE BOX). These four have done solid work in the past, and with only one instruction - “make it scary!” - they've been given a free reign to create something extraordinary.

I'm hoping at least a few of these come to our local second run/art house the Arcata Theater Lounge (that's as broad a hint as I can offer!). And for a few other choices (based on enthusiastic responses from other film festivals) I recommend SPRING, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, DYS, EJECTA, and WHEN ANIMALS DREAM.

Here's to 2015; I think it's going to be an extraordinary year!

 

 

It's become my tradition each December to take this time and recommend some gifts for family and friends whose taste run towards the macabre and eerie, which is perfect for the Christmas Season!

Please note that this is not a transparent attempt at posting my own personal Wish List; much as I treasure the generosity of my human friends and companions, I have pretty much all I need and receive some lovely gifts from a small circle of acquaintances; if you are feeling particularly generous there are numerous wonderful charities that would be delighted to accept all donations during this time of year, from “Scares That Care” to “Toys for Tots” to the Red Cross (and giving blood is a precious gift that is appropriate anytime!) Anything you can give to them will be gift enough for this spectre, and greatly and gratefully appreciated!

For the rest, for all your loved ones, here are some suggestions that they might enjoy discovering under their tree:

Do you know someone who's particularly computer savy and loves Horror films? They might enjoy these USB keychains fashioned after Horror Icons Leatherface (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE) Michael Myers (HALLOWEEN) and Freddy Krueger (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET). And I apologize in advance for the awful music that accompanies this webpage; were they savailable elsewhere I'd send you there. Click on the images below and turn down your speakers when ordering.



Do you know a fan of the classic Universal films? One very special gift coming after the new year is the definitive guide to Tod Browning's DRACULA (which just happens to be the name of the book as well!) Written by film historian, filmmaker and Horror fan Gary D. Rhodes, who spent years exhaustively researching the facts behind the making of this iconic masterpiece, the book is garnering almost universal acclaim in the UK as we speak, and is scheduled to be released in the US in February 2015. Your intended will have to accept an IOU on Christmas morning, but I don't think they'll mind terribly once they receive this remarkable gift. (And the anticipation will make the Season last longer!) Click on the image below to preorder.



I confess: I've not seen a single episode of AMERICAN HORROR STORY. (This isn't a critical assessment; I don't receive the channel that broadcasts the series and haven't had time to watch the seasons on DVD. I understand it's quite exceptional.) If you have a collector on your gift list that is enthusiastic about the show, you'll want to peruse the Funko POP! Page dedicated to figures from the past three seasons, including Fiona Goode, Marie Laveau and the Rubberman. Click on the image of Papa Legba below and see what they have to offer.



If you have several collectors in your family, you could do far worse than to check out Funko's entire website for your shopping convenience. They offer collectibles from television, animation and film, including such diverse fare as Disney's FROZEN and NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (including some handsome Dia de los Muertos figures of Jack and Sally), STAR TREK (both TOS and TNG), ADVENTURE TIME, BATMAN, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and HALLOWEEN. For myself, and those fans of the Distinguished Gentleman from Providence, I direct you to a certain Elder God (but don't say his name while placing your order. Click on the image below and beware!)



Warm winter wear is always a popular gift during the holidays, and if your loved one has a penchant for Cthulhu (or any other supernatural denizens) then they'll probably enjoy a fine sweater from Blame Betty's Christmas Collection; in addition to the Great Old One you'll find Goat's head Pentagram design, two sweaters featuring the Christmas Devil Krampus, and a Bigfoot cardigan. They have both pullover and front button designs perfect for a spectral night by a roaring fire. Click on the image below to place your orders.



For those of a more artistic and creative temperament, might I suggest these two collections of paper doll figures, the first featuring heroes and villains from classic Horror films (including PSYCHO's Norman Bates, both as himself and Mother and Marion Crane, HALLOWEEN's Michael Myers and Laurie Strode, and the various incarnations of Jason Voorhees from the FRIDAY THE 13TH series) and the second famous vampires (including Vlad Tepsis and Elizabeth Bathory, Count Orlock from NOSFERATU, various Dracula's from Bela Lugosi through Christopher Lee to Gary Oldman, and Barnabas Collins from DARK SHADOWS). Adults and youngsters should enjoy the wonderful artwork; click on each book cover below to order your choice (or buy them both!)



If zombies are your forte (I confess I'm a bit weary of their omnipresence at this point) then you'll surely enjoy these representatives of the Yule Season: undead versions of Santa Claus, a snowman, a reindeer and an elf from ThinkGeek that will look particularly festive hanging hungrily from your tree. (And don't forget to order the chocolate Zombie Santa as a stocking stuffer!) Click on the foursome below for your purchasing pleasure.



If you're looking for something to liven up your Christmas breakfast, may I suggest this splendid egg mold? You can create the perfect macabre ambiance for your seasonal merriment (and probably reuse it during October!) And with a little bit of ketchup or salsa and some creative decorating, I can join you for your holiday brunch! You can order this by clicking on the delicious image below.


And finally, from a gentleman who also understood the macabre merriment that is the Christmas Season, two gifts from the imagination of Rod Serling, creator of the marvelous TWILGHT ZONE series. If you are a fan of the show and a collector of the various available merchandize, you'll want to peruse the CBS store for T shirts, coffee mugs and figures from that wonderful show. You can go there by clicking on the image of Talky Tina below. (But be carefully if you order her; she says the most unpleasant things...)



And, as I recommended last month, I heartily endorse the new TWILIGHT ZONE complete DVD set "The Fifth Dimension", which contains every episode of not only the original 1960s series but the fantastic 1980s revival as well as an extraordinary number of extras and special features. This is a fan's ultimate dream, and may signal the best Christmas celebration ever. (A warning though: giving this gift may result in overwhelming displays of gratitude and affection from the recipient, as well as an endless marathon of viewing to take you well past New year's Day. Approach with caution.)



What ever you receive from Father Christmas this year, I hope it's a splendid example of your heart's desire, and I wish you the happiest of seasons and celebrations! Joyeux Noël, my Friends!

 

 

I step to the rear of the bus for no one in my admiration for the late Rod Serling. From his 'mainstream' dramas PATTERNS and REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT to his film work with SEVEN DAYS IN MAY and PLANET OF THE APES, and of course with his two classic genre television series THE TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT GALLERY, I believe he exemplifies the best attributes of screenwriting: a desire to do more than simply 'entertain', a moral center that speaks strongly to society's ills and strengths, and a passion and affection for the average individual and his spiritual and ethical place in the universe.

Years ago, during a discussion of television and the Dark Fantastic, someone asked why there hadn't been a successful anthology series to follow THE TWILIGHT ZONE, a writer of my acquaintance made the following observation: “When I watch TWILIGHT ZONE, I know all the people involved; they're my family, my friends, my neighbors, people I meet on the street. I know and understand all of them, and I believe and identify with them. The latest series that I've seen have no characters I can identify with, or even recognize; they're all cardboard, moved around at the writer's and director's whims. They're foolish and stupid and caricatures of individuals that have no relation to anyone or anything in the real world.”



Classic TWILIGHT ZONE - "Time Enough At Last"


I agree. THE TWILIGHT ZONE featured not space-faring heroes ala STAR TREK or faceless victims as in most Horror films; they were average men and women facing extraordinary circumstances testing them and bringing out both the best and worst of humanity. They were people who tried as best as they could to cope with bewildering and often unpleasant circumstances, not only of the supernatural variety, but bigotry, war, poverty, class warfare, and a loss of direction and morality in society. They fought back and coped as they were able; some failed, and that failure was recognized as a tragedy, but many prevailed, sometimes at the expense of their own lives, but their sacrifices touched many and made the world a better place to be.

This came from Mr. Serling. He had a special touch, almost a street poetry, in dealing with the lives of the ordinary. When confronted with a rip in reality that plunged the characters into their fantastic adventures in THE TWILIGHT ZONE, viewers could follow along with the dread and anticipation that those involved in the story could easily be them; that reality was fluid and ever-changing, and the unknown was always brushing against the boundaries of their lives. It was that feeling of normalcy slipping away that gave TWILIGHT ZONE (and much of NIGHT GALLERY) it's heart and power.

Of course Mr. Serling wasn't the first or only writer to use this particular trait and talent in the genre; Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont also excelled in placing the macabre and magical side-by-side with the mundane. (All all three authors would write for THE TWILIGHT ZONE.) Jack Finney also mapped out his territory with his novel "The Body Snatchers" and "The Woodrow Wilson Dime". (Mr. Serling was a great fan of Mr. Finney, and tried often to purchase his stories for his series; unfortunately they were unable to come to a financial arrangement.) Today Stephen King possesses that ability and uses it extremely well. Mr. Serling was part of a great tradition in the field; his greatest contribution was introducing it weekly to mainstream audiences that otherwise wouldn't be aware of Dark Fantasy.



Classic TWILIGHT ZONE - "Eye Of The Beholder"


There have been numerous releases of this landmark television series for the home viewing market. But perhaps nothing have ever come close to being a dream collection as the soon-to-be-released THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE 5TH DIMENSION limited box set. A 41 DVD collection that contains not only the remastered episodes from the original five-year 1959-64 series, but also the complete 1985-89 re-imagination, along with literally dozen's of extra features formerly only available on Blu-Ray.

Included are several interviews with Mr. Serling, cast interviews, audio commentaries from those involved in both series, the AMERICAN MASTERS documentary “Rod Serling: Submitted For Your Approval”, and a completely new two-part feature documentary exclusively created for this set: “As Timeless As Infinity: The Twilight Zone Legacy”!

Producer/Director Daniel Griffith has truly assembled a labor of love for the series in all its incarnations. The documentary features newly filmed interviews with some true heavyweights in the genre. They include:

Carol & Jodi Serling (Mr. Serling's widow and daughter, respectively)

Mark Scott Zicree (perhaps the authority on THE TWILIGHT ZONE and author of “The Twilight Zone Companion” book)

Wes Craven (creator and director of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, THE HILLS HAVE EYES and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and director of several of the 1980 TWILIGHT ZONE episodes)

J. Michael Straczynski (creator of BABYLON FIVE and writer of many 1980 TWILIGHT ZONE episodes)

Rockne S. O'Bannon (creator of FARSCAPE and creative consultant on the 1980s revival)

Brannon Braga (Producer and writer on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and director of COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODDYSEY)

David J. Schow (screenwriter of THE CROW)

There's also an 80 page episode guide and one of four possible 1960s TWILIGHT ZONE comic books to make the collection complete.



The 1980s Revival - "Nightcrawlers"


To say that this may be the finest collection for any classic series smacks of hyperbole, but it seems completely fitting for such a special Boxed Set. This is probably one of the most important releases ever assembled, and although it promises to be pricey (approximately $300.00) I think it will be worth the cost for any serious collector and fan of Mr. Serling's classic creation.

And with the Christmas Season approaching, it may be that perfect one-of-a-kind gift for that special someone in your life who treasures the Dark Fantastic. In fact, it's a gift I wouldn't mind receiving, if any of my human friends were thinking of me.

Just a thought, mind you...

To order the set and learn more about it, you can click on the image below.



 

 

Despite the tradition of children trick-or-treating, Halloween has become in recent years a time for parties, Most of these have a grown-up slant, and retailers have ridden this wave to the blood-soaked beach. Among the dubious offerings are 'sexy' variations of character costumes (vampire, witch, Disney princess among more salacious designs), all-night drinking marathons at various alcohol establishments and a generally heightened sense of revelry far removed from youthful innocence or the Celtic origins of the Season.

I consider some of this quite sad; in some part Halloween should always be for the young and young-at-heart, and there is nothing amusing about the drunken prattlings of inebriated celebrants in vinyl capes and fishnet stockings (sometimes on the same individual). I know of what I speak; I've dealt with this many times during All Hallows events.

But considering the popularity of these adult festivities (and a multimillion dollar industry attests to this) perhaps I am the one out of touch this time of year. In that spirit, in not quite an if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them surrender, may I suggest some spirits, delicacies and décor to make your Halloween celebration a touch more enjoyable?

If you're looking for a special vintage to offer your guests, you might consider this series of wines from the Vincent Price Signature Wine Collection. They offer four wines based on Mr. Price's Edgar Allen Pow roles in Roger Corman's classic films, each with a label by a renown genre artist. They include 2012 Raven Cabernet, 2013 Lenore Chardonnay (HOUSE OF USHER), 2012 Prospero Pinot Noir (MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) and Bartolome Red (THE PIT & THE PENDULEM). I've not tasted them myself, so caveat emptor, but you can learn more about them (and purchase them) by clicking on the image below.


If you prefer a Zinfandel, I can personally recommend California's Armida Winery's specially packaged 2011 Poizin. Sold in its distinctive red skull embossed bottle with wax seal, the wine is sold and shipped inside a delightful miniature wooden coffin also similarly embossed. (Also available is a special silver-&-black bottle in a black coffin, and a special set featuring two embossed glass goblets.) Admittedly I'm not a connsesoir, but I've found the wine delicious; if you're inclined to sample some, you can click on the image below.


Perhaps your tastes run more towards a sweet tooth. Look no further than these delicious chocolate skulls from Williams-Sonoma. Produced by Cacao Atlanta, a renowned chocolatier, the black skulls are made from 60% cacao dark chocolate and filled with salted caramel. Topped with an edible gold glitter, the presentation is complete with a black-wrapped gift box with gold skull embossed on top. Although these may be a bit pricey for many of my friends, their quality is assured. You can peruse or order by clicking on the image below.



And we can't forget our friends at Dem Bones with their skull-shaped sugar cubes, perfect for that late evening final coffee before the night draws to an end.



And some final thoughts on perhaps the last woman you'd expect to be a All Hallow's icon...

I've never been an enormous fan of much of Martha Stewart's work; still I am bound to point out that whatever you may think of some of her other efforts and activities, she is an ardent admirer of Halloween. Indeed, the October Season seems to be one of her favorite holidays, and she displays a definite taste and talent for the macabre.

Her Martha Stewart decorations found in craft stores such as Michael's show a sophistication and elegance that can often be missing from some of the more garish displays and designs. I admire her taste and her craft, and am always looking forward to what she has planned for each new year's event. (And the October issue of her magazine is the only one I look to purchase on a regular basis.)

You can find some of her suggestions for homemade projects and crafts (some quite ingenious) by clicking on the top image below; clicking on the lower one will take you to her online catalog of this year's official offerings.




So enjoy your celebrations; drink responsibly (eat responsibly as well) and stay safe and healthy for November. And if you're so inclined, raise a glass in toast to Yours Truly, and know that, though not there in person, I am definitely with you in 'spirit'!

 

 

With school currently back in session, I thought I'd invite you to audit a few classes at a British public school containing some of the most loathsome students ever committed to film.

Those who know me well understand that I am not a fan of gory films; while I have no problem with films that show carnage with restraint and artistry owing to the dramatics involved (such as DAWN OF THE DEAD or JAWS or ALIEN or THE EXORCIST or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE...I think you get the idea...) I have no patience for films that trowel on the gore thick simply for its own sake and revel in their nihilism and violence.

But there are exceptions. (Aren't there always?) Sometimes excessive gore is an art form in itself, owing much to the Grand Guignol theater of Paris, where the effects take on an almost cartoonish exuberance that has little to do with reality. Among those I've enjoyed are the EVIL DEAD films and the legendary lawnmower moment from Peter Jackson's DEAD ALIVE.

To this list you can now add TORMENTED (not to be confused with Bert I. Gordon's wonderful 1960 ghost story of the same name), a 2009 film from the UK that features some of the most outrageous grue committed to screen that I've seen in a long while. Yet it's also sharply written, well directed and superbly acted, so there's more going on here than simply FX run wild. (Although they do run wild...)

As mentioned above, the film concerns a group of students, a clan of the most popular and influential teens in the senior class, all obsessed with partying, drugs and casual sex. They bully the other students, both male and female, with one particular student as their favorite whipping boy (literally): Darren, an asthmatic young man nicknamed 'Shrek' for his size and somatype. Darren was friends in childhood with Justine, who has grown to become one of the popular crowd, although they often react to her with thinly veiled contempt because she's not as well-off as the rest. Justine can't even remember being friends with Darren, but Darren has an unrequited crush on her, and when the others find out they abuse him mercilessly, driving him to suicide. But Darren isn't finished with them, and he returns as a revenant, a vengeful ghost determined to take revenge on all.

Now, I'll grant you that plot isn't terribly original. What causes the film to rise above the norm is the grim, sharp wit of the screenplay by Stephen Prentice, which makes some very telling points about the teenage caste system and school hierarchy; the energetic and macabre direction of Jon Wright, and the pitch perfect performances of the cast, especially Calvin Dean as Darren (heartbreaking in his early scenes and utterly unnerving on his return from the dead), Tuppence Middleton as Justine, Georgia King, April Pearson, Dimitri Leonidas and Alex Pettyfer as Darren's chief tormentors, and all the other students both sympathetic and vile.

I won't try to convince you that TORMENTED is a work of Art on par with the best of the Dark Fantastic such as THE INNOCENTS, THE SHINING or PSYCHO; it doesn't even quite reach the modest goals of HALLOWEEN or THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. The film it most probably most resembles is CARRIE, based on Stephen King's wonderful first novel. Like Carrie White, Darren is the target of a horrible prank and relentless persecution, and like Carrie White Darren returns to dole out supernatural retribution to his classmates.

TORMENTED is in no way as well done as CARRIE, but there are moments and subtext that I found fascinating and well-presented; if focused a bit more the film may have benefited. But as it is there are wonderful moments that echo with Mr. King's work: the boredom and self-loathing of the popular crowd, causing misery to escape the emptiness of their own lives, not fro any better reason than because there's nothing else to do. There is the unspoken condescension of Justine by the others, and the veiled hints that if she doesn't go along she'll become a target as well. There is school presented as a microcosm of the outside world where bullying is part of the natural order and natural selection (and Misters Prentice and Wright offer a sly shadowing that I wish they'd drawn more sharply: that the reason the adults in the school don't intervene on Darren's behalf is because deep down they believe that Darren, as the weaker individual, deserves most of what he gets). And most gratifyingly, I was surprised to see that Misters Prentice and Wright suggest strongly that those that sit by while bullying occurs and do nothing about it are just as complicit in the crime as those that take part, perhaps even more so, and the film has the courage to follow this reasoning to it's very dark and (to me) most satisfying conclusion.

If I'm making TORMENTED sound like a thought-provoking morality tale, perish the thought; these subtexts are exactly that, and hover in the background as extra spice in the aroma of the stew. What TORMENTED is in truth is a gory sideshow of carnage and retribution doled out in a most agreeable manner. These miserable youngsters elicit little sympathy (although they do enough to keep the characters from becoming complete caricatures); they're there to be sliced into tiny bits, and this happens with abandon. But it's done with such over-the-top flair that only the mortally lacking in humor can be offended; most likely, as with myself, you'll sit there after a set-piece and shake your head in a combination of admiration, disbelief and wonder. Heads are severed from bodies in mid plea, eyes are plucked from their sockets and pushed back in (a scene that will make your skin crawl), lovers parked in a graveyard are dragged from their car and the male given a...um...rough vasectomy. And one young lady has her hands removed by a paper cutter, thereafter depositing what appears to be the volume of a small swimming pool of blood across the Art Room floor. All good clean fun on a Saturday night.

Obviously TORMENTED is not for everyone. But if your tastes are a bit more liberal and your are no easily dissuaded by scenes of graphic sex, language and most importantly violence, all presented with a circus atmosphere, and if you're in the mood to dig a bit deeper than most to see the moral center and allegory behind it all, then you'll probably enjoy the film as much as I did and find it a worthy effort. But don't say I didn't warn you. And if you're the type that turns a movie off the moment the closing credits begin to roll, curb that urge this one time, for there is a final scene after the movie is complete that addresses some of the adults' roles in Darren's punishments, and it caps TORMENTED on a nicely ironic note.

Class dismissed.

 

 

One of the most respected traditions in Speculative Fiction is the concept of "Alternate History". For the uninitiated, that's simply a fancy term for the practice of wondering “what if?” and taking it to its logical conclusion. For example:

What if Nazi Germany won World War II? (Phillip K. Dick's classic novel “The Man In The High Castle.”) What if the Confederate States had won the Civil War? (Ward Moore's “Bring The Jubilee.”) What if England had won the Revolutionary War? (Harry Harrison's wonderful “A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!”)

But Alternate History isn't simply restricted to war story speculations. The film BUCKAROO BANZAI postulated the premise that Orson Welles's “War Of The Worlds” broadcast had actually been a news report. One of the most famous examples of Alternate History is Alan Moore's landmark graphic novel “Watchmen” and the film of the same, which suggested that superheroes existed in the real world and Richard Nixon had never resigned the Presidency.

These are only scratching the surface; there are countless novels, reference books, websites and blogs dedicated to the “what if?” principle and carrying it as far as it will sustain. Recently through the direction of HorrorHost Lon Madnight, I discovered one of the most imaginative and very best; a true labor of love that speculates on the nature of episodic television in the 1960s.

THE FANTASTIC FOUR TV SERIES (1963-64) never actually happened. But don't tell that to the creators of this entertaining site, the so-called “Yancy Street Gang” of Tom, Roger and Brandon; they probably won't believe you. Indeed, after perusing this marvelous bit of tomfoolery (and you will waste time here, trust me) you may begin to doubt your senses and memories as well! It takes a very simple premise – what if the popular Marvel “Fantastic Four” comic books had been turned into a short-lived live-action television series in the early 1960s - and runs with it like the finest Olympic marathoner, winning not only the gold but several silvers and bronze as well.



Guest-star Paul Henreid as super-villain Doctor Doom


Make no mistake: there was no live-action series (although there were several animated ones, from the 1960s through the 1980s, and two live action feature films in the past ten years). I continue to emphasize this because Misters Tom, Roger and Brandon (whose history, like the rest of the site, is shrouding in fiction and mystery) write so convincingly, with such affection for both vintage television production and comic adaptations, and with such careful research and convincing extrapolation, that, like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films, I'm absolutely certain many will take their amusement as gospel truth, going as far as to write several DVD companies to acquire episodes of the series!

Dropping names right and left of actual producers, writers, studios, directors and actors, doing this so logically and mixing fictional events and timelines with factual ones, researching carefully the genuine histories of several television productions and extrapolating logically their own speculations, the creators have woven and almost seamless mixture of what really happened with what might have (and possibly should have) been. It's funny, admirable and in some ways sad; after viewing the site I want nothing more than this to have been true, and that's the highest compliment I could possibly pay.

Very briefly (I don't want to take away any of your enjoyment in your own exploration):

William Frye, producer of the television series THRILLER (all true) was looking for a new venture when the series was cancelled in 1962. Intrigued when he saw John Carradine's son Robert reading a “Fantastic Four” comic book, he contacted creator Stan Lee and bought the rights to the comic to be adapted into a television series. He hired Associate Producers James Fitzsimons and Cy Chermak, formerly of THE COURAGE OF BLACK BEAUTY (true) for the show, and began soliciting scripts from screenwriters who'd contributed to television's THE TWILIGHT ZONE, including George Clayton Johnson, Charles Beaumont, Jerome Bixby and Richard Matheson, along with future STAR TREK writers Ted Sturgeon and Harlan Ellison (true).

The series starred Russell Johnson (of TWILIGHT ZONE, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and THIS ISLAND EARTH and soon to be GILLIGAN'S ISLAND) as Reed Richards, “Mr. Fantastic”; Elizabeth Montgomery (of THE THIRD MAN, THE TWILIGHT ZONE and soon to be BEWITCHED) as Sue Storm, “The Invisible Girl”; Tim Considine (of THE ADVENTURES OF SPIN & MARTY and MY THREE SONS) as Johnny Storm, “The Human Torch”, and William Demarest (of IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, THE TWILIGHT ZONE and MY THREE SONS) as Ben Grimm, “The Thing”. And television history was made…



William Demarest in full character makeup as "The Thing", and in a scene with model Jean Shrimpton playing his love interest, blind sculptress Alicia Masters.
(Special thanks to T.L. of   MacLean, VA.)


Now I ask you: go back to the above and separate the fact from the fiction, if you can!

The rest of the history is inspired, including the casting of guest stars (Burgess Meredith as “The Mole Man”, Fabian as Prince Namor, “The Submariner”, and Paul Henreid as Doctor Doom”), the episodes that each writer would choose to explore, and the various production problems (Mr. Demarest complaining about the complexity of “The Thing's” makeup, and the producer's decision to try a modified version in the second season to save time and money; the cost of special effects and the solutions to presenting the Negative Zone by filming it in negative film stock).



And the icing on the cake is the production stills, carefully photoshopped pieces that place the actual actor's features into the specially created black & white photos. You can see some of them above and below. (Although to be extremely fair and impartial, some of these work better than others. That's the most minor quibble I can offer.)

The extent of this site goes far beyond the potential one-joke concept and becomes a true work of art, silliness, reverence and a fine addition to the Alternate History collective. I eager await the expanded and extended version with “Never Before Seen!” productions stills and possible video. My greatest regret remains that we will not be seeing these episodes anytime in the future on METV.

Congratulations to the Yancy Street Gang, whoever you might be; you've done Stan Lee, Marvel, classic television and speculative fiction proud! Excelsior!

To explore the site for yourself, click on the image below.


 

 

Some time ago, in discussing the plethora of zombie-themed films flooding the airwaves, theaters and rental houses, I mentioned that some variations of the formula would be extremely welcome. I noted that it might be nice to have a film told from the point of view of the Animated Dead themselves, and at least one should be called “I, Zombie”.

That title never came to fruition, sadly, but the idea of developing the Undead's viewpoint was explored in a few different films, most notably in the low budget efforts COLIN, ZOMBIES and WASTING AWAY, all to various degrees of success. But it wasn't until the BBC presented their three part miniseries IN THE FLESH that a zombie-themed production truly examined the ideas of returning from the dead through the perspective of the Dead themselves in a manner worthy of the respect accorded George Romero's original pop-culture phenomenon.

IN THE FLESH wasn't the first television series dealing with a world overrun by the Walking Dead; ironically enough American television produced a fairly popular effort called, naturally enough, THE WALKING DEAD, which remains one of television's most popular series. But IN THE FLESH turned the entire concept on its head and presented what I like to refer to as ‘the thinking man's LIVING DEAD'; not to disparage the efforts of Mr. Romero, Frank Darabont or Robert Kirkman (the latter the creators of THE WALKING DEAD, as series producer and creator of the original graphic novel on which the series is based, respectively), but to acknowledge the leap that creator Dominic Mitchell made in taking the Undead Apocalypse scenario to hitherto untapped heights.



Despite the justifiably famous graphic violence and gore effects that the film series has become famous for, Mr. Romero's movies were always concerned primarily with social criticism and commentary. The Living Dead represented the way societies change, and a new regime constantly arises from the ashes of the old. From the mindless consumerism of the zombie hordes walking the empty shopping mall in DAWN OF THE DEAD to the military industrial mindset of the crisis explored in DAY OF THE DEAD through the Have and Have-Not contrasts in LAND OF THE DEAD, Mr. Romero was much more concerned with how humanity interacts with its members than in simply chronically carnage and mayhem.

IN THE FLESH follows firmly in those footsteps, presenting a new world four years after “the Rising”, when the Dead have begun inexplicably to reanimate. After the initial conflict, known as “the Pale Wars”, the Dead have been reintegrated into society; their ravenous hunger has been controlled through drugs and behavioral modification. They've been given jobs and attend group meetings similar to AA in order to help control their impulses. Even the cosmetic manufacturers have done their part, creating special makeups to help the Dead blend in more naturally with the living.

But some are not willing to coexist with the Reanimated; there are vigilante groups that hunt the Dead through their neighborhoods, taking revenge for the carnage from years before. There are religious institutions that condemn the Dead as ‘unnatural' to God's plan and reject the idea of humanity returning to life without sacred intervention. And there are radical members of the Dead themselves who resent being treated as second-class individuals and are refusing to take it any more…to reveal more would be to dilute the impact of this extraordinary drama.



Some have read IN THE FLESH as a metaphor for the Gay Rights movement, and there's certainly validity in that interpretation, but I believe the series examines the oppression of any minority group and the consequences inherent in society's entrenchment of the ‘normal'. This is social commentary with a vengeance; what the Dark Fantastic can do exceptionally well: hold up a dark, crooked reflection to what has gone before.

The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly Luke Newberry as our young teen Undead protagonist Ren, Steve Evets as Macey, the leader of the local militia killing the Undead, until his son returns from Afghanistan “not quite alive”, David Walmsley as Rick, Macey's son and Ren's lover, and Emily Bevan as Amy, one of the more radical Undead who considers her state of being a blessing.

The writing is clever and pointed, with the Dead referred to as PDS (for “Partially Deceased Syndrome”) or “rotters” as a racial pejorative. Screenwriter Dominic Mitchell and Director Jonny Campbell (who helmed several memorable episodes of DOCTOR WHO) have created a powerful, thought-provoking and controversial work. The original three-episode miniseries is available on DVD, and the second season will be broadcast this May on BBC America, and I commend it to you with utmost enthusiasm.

Mr. Romero should be very proud.


 

 

The Horror-Comedy is often an oxymoron. Creating scares and laughter in the space of a few minutes is a unique talent that requires a special sensibility; few are able to carry it off properly, and some don't find it remotely probably. The late Rod Serling, for instance, immensely disliked the comic blackout short segments that intermingled with the larger, serious stories on his NIGHT GALLERY television series, believing that the comic effect of the shorts diluted the atmosphere of fear he was trying to maintain.

Perhaps one of the finest practitioners of the form was author Robert Bloch, who has dozens of short stories to his credit where the humor and horror sit side-by-side, each one equally valid, many of which made it into his anthology films ASYLUM and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. He's famous for his quip about not being the nightmarish purveyor of terror his fans believe him to be, stating, “I have the heart of a small child,” then adding, “I keep it in a small jar on my desk!” This sense of humor served him well in the novel and film version of PSYCHO, and Mr. Hitchcock seemed to share his macabre tastes. (Remember the famous line: “Mother…what's that phrase?...isn't herself today…”)

It is a delicate balance. If the humor is too broad or overwhelming, the fright won't materialize, and if the terror is too strong the humor will fall flat or seem simply silly. The numbers of truly funny yet fearful works make an extremely short list. ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON . BUCKET OF BLOOD. Perhaps some moments in THE HOWLING. THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS. Maybe HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. I'm running out of examples myself; perhaps you can come up with a few more.

But I think you can add to the above ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE UNDEAD, a small gem from 2009 starring Jake Hoffman, Devon Aoki, John Ventimiglia, Chip Zen, Jeremy Sisto and an almost unrecognizable Ralph Macchio, written and directed by Jordan Galland. It's a terrific poison-pen to the ‘talents' who make up your typical Off-Off-Broadway production, a barbed, sardonic rumination on ambition and fidelity, a clever riff and parody on Shakespeare's themes and writings, and a bloody, sexy vampire tale. What more could you ask?

Julian (Jake Hoffman) is an out-of-work director whose skills, to be charitable, are less than encouraging and who is more interested in his love life and sexual conquests than his ‘art'. Into his life comes Theo, who's written a variation of “Hamlet” that mishmashes several of the Bard's characters and most recognizable scenarios into a vampiric tale of revenge. But there's more to the production than simply clashes of egos and a bastardization of the Method; Theo is more than he appears, and is planning to use the play to gain possession of a valuable object that has ramifications for humanity. Meanwhile, the real Hamlet is stalking behind the scene, female vampire succubae are eliminating most of the supporting players, a mobster (delightfully assayed by Ralph Macchio) is determined to keep Undead competition from his turf, and Julian is struggling to hang onto his girlfriend, who's caught Theo's eye – and bed as many other ladies as possible in the time left. Then things become complicated.

If you've ever been part of a theatrical production whose ambitions outweighed its abilities; if you've ever suffered through a hapless director's attempt to doubletalk his way through a simple stage blocking or listened in agony as a bit player declaimed on his motivation, you'll enjoy the machinations of Julian and his company. Here is a group of performers determined to the death to prove the adage, “There are no small parts; only small actors,” and believe themselves to be giants. And on top of everything else, it's a fine, gruesome piece of Grand Guingol as produced by Mack Sennet and Chuck Jones.

Indeed, the only weak part of the film is its ending; when all is said and done, something this much fun and dangerous deserves a huge, over-the-top outrageous conclusion that pushes bad taste to the maximum and leaves the audience shaking their heads while laughing, jaws dropping at the sheer audacity. The ending is much too conventional, and considering the wonderful black comedy that's gone on before, it's a disappointment. The Monty Python troupe were experienced hands at what kind of balderdash was required to bring a tale like this to its proper finish, and their absence (and the absence of their sensibilities) causes the production to suffer.

But be that as it may. This is still a fine, gory and Goreyesque (as in Edward) romp, with performances this shade of perfect and gloriously staged and paced by creator Galland. The cast is near perfect in their deadpan amorality, with Mr. Hoffman, Ms. Aoki, Mr. Ventimiglia and especially Mr. Macchio deserving of every kudos offered.

I had a marvelous time, Sweet Prince, and before you depart for the undiscovered country to sleep, perchance to dream, you'll want to catch these revels and take up your swords against any opposing seas of troubles with these most unmerry wanderers of the night. Or, failing that, just enjoy!

To learn more about the movie, click on the images below; the one on the left is the traditional film poster, but the one on the right is my preferred choice!

 

 

Some authors are drawn to the Dark Fantastic as a way of expressing themes and presenting ideas that aren't possible in their usual milieu. Many times these authors become enamored of the freedom and possibilities of our genre and return to it again and again. Misters Shakespeare, Dickens and Twain are three individuals not primarily known as writers of the Weird and Macabre that felt very comfortable with otherworldly creatures and settings and things that bumped, crashed and whispered in the dark.

In more modern times John D. MacDonald, known primarily as a writer of thrillers, particularly the wonderful Travis McGee books, enjoyed tapping into the Fantastic with his superb SF books “Wine Of The Dreamers”, “Ballroom Of The Skies” and “The Girl, The Gold Watch, And Everything”. William Goldman tapped into the vein with his delightful fables “The Princess Bride” and “The Silent Gondoliers”, and skirted into Horror and SF with “Marathon Man”, “Control”, "Brothers" and “Magic”, his one outright Horror offering.

Some authors, though, attempt the Dark Fantastic one time and find their hunger sated. John Updike, chronicler of Middle-Class suburban anxieties and social status, created the marvelous “The Witches Of Eastwick” and thought that enough (although years later he did create the terrific sequel “The Widows Of Eastwick”). Anne Rivers Siddons was honored by Stephen King in having her haunted house novel “The House Next Door” cited as a modern classic of the supernatural, and has stayed in the Southern contemporary mores tradition since. F. Scott Fitzgerald, creator of “The Great Gatsby” and “The Last Tycoon”, explored the Fantasy realm with “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button”, and never went back. But then again, like many one time authors – Harper Lee with “To Kill A Mockingbird”, Margaret Mitchell with “Gone With The Wind” – the books created were of such quality that once was enough.

Mark Helprin is a fine contemporary author, essayist and social commentator; there is a great deal of whimsy and surrealism in many of his works. But his only complete novel of Fantasy was one of his first, “Winter's Tale”. And it's a wonder. A love story to the city of New York, “Winter's Tale" is lyrical, pure magic, and lovingly details a world where the fantastic goes hand-in-hand with the mundane, and forces exist just beyond our peripheral vision, yet we manages to catch sight of them every-so-often if we look carefully.

The novel is actually a collection of tales and characters, not unlike Ray Bradbury's “The Martian Chronicles”, but unlike Mr. Bradbury's work, the stories and characters interweave and entwine with each other throughout the novel, much like in the best of Charles Dickens. And the interweaving doesn't simply take place through the narrative years, but encompasses all of space and time. New York is an enchanted realm, at one with John Nichols's town of Milagro, New Mexico and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's village of Macondo, Columbia .

I wouldn't dream of trying to impart even a piece of the plot to you, partly because the joy of diving into the novel is its surprises, and partly because there is no real plot. The story is huge and sweeping and takes place over generations and millennia, and to try and encapsulate it would be to simply impart a string of sentences that begin, “…and then…and then…and then…”

I will mention Peter Lake, master mechanic and successful thief, who acquires and old milk horse from Brooklyn that discovers that he's actually a creature of myth, known as Pegasus or by another ancient name; Beverly Penn, young and dying of consumption but able to look deeply into the universe and see its working, Pearly Soames, leader of the Short Tails street gang, who is fascinated by color and wants to build a room entirely of gold to entrap the daylight; and a ragged and refined collection of newspaper magnates, ghosts, politicians, time travelers, clergy, savage tribes in the New Jersey marshlands and the Great White Cloud that seals New York off from the rest of the world. (Except for the time it lifts and allows the trains to get through.) And throughout is Winter in all its glory: filling the streets, hills and mountains turning them into a faerie kingdom of white, freezing the lakes and rivers into pathways and highweays of wonder.

And for all the dangers that inhabit this place, and all the sadness that lives in the hearts of those present (and there is some sadness in this wonderland), this is a novel without a trace of malice or foreboding; all troubles are due to a lack of understanding and are solved with courage and faith, making it one with terrific films like LABRYNTH and SPIRTED AWAY and part of the literary movement of White Magical Realism (of which I talk more in my THOUGHTS & REVERIES essay this month.)

The opening epigram of the novel is “I have been to another world, and come back. Listen to me.” I can think of no finer exhortation for any teller of tales or readers of the Dark fantastic. I think you'll greatly enjoy this tome; it reads at over 650 pages, with plenty to nibble on for months at a time. This volume occupies a special place of pleasure and honor on my bookshelf; I'm certain it will do likewise with you.

To order the book or learn more about it, please click on the image below.


 

 

There's often discussion in the Dark Fantastic community about where the next great artist will be coming from. In books the standard is usually Stephen King; many publishers will hype their latest find as “the new Stephen King!” (as if something was lacking in the other one.) And in film there's much argument and debate about who will inherit the mantle of the new John Carpenter, the new David Cronenberg, the new George Romero.

Others use older icons as touchplate; Dario Argento, for instance, after the release of his THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMMAGE became “the next Alfred Hitchcock”. Of course the two biggest things wrong with that were that 1) Mr. Hitchcock was still very much alive at the time, and 2) Mr. Argento, as much as he admired the Master, had other concerns and passions (as he soon demonstrated with DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA).

Well, at the risk of bringing your wrath down upon my spectral presence, I'd like to nominate an artist for the title of the Val Lewton of the New Millennium. His name is James Wan, is probably very well known to most Horror fans, and, no matter what moniker you may choose to hang on him, as an artist of quite considerable talents.

(A bit of exposition. Val Lewton, a film producer of the 1940s and creator behind such classics as CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE LEOPARD MAN, THE SEVENTH VICTIM and THE BODY SNATCHER, has been heralded by genre aficionados, including Harlan Ellison, Richard Matheson, and Yours Truly, as one of the greatest talents in our field. Although saddled with very low budgets and absurd titles foisted on him by the studios, Mr. Lewton understood the mechanics and moods of genuine fear, and his films are monuments to intelligent, adult Dark Fantasy, filled with smart, believable characters in the thrall of terrible events and circumstances. He was extraordinarily sensitive to sound, lighting, and the subtle, unseen dreads that haunt nightmares. No other artist since, as producer, director or writer, could touch his expertise with evoking absolute terror.)



James Wan first burst on the scene with his film SAW, which became a modern classic. The so-called “franchise” and imitators in the ‘Torture Porn' tradition have done much to dilute the original film's memory, but one should view it again and marvel at how skilled the hackles were raised using little to no graphic gore or violence, and how smart and believable the characters were. It was the situations and the mood that gripped the imaginations, not cheap shocks and jumps at the expense of the audience's intelligence. And that ending! Few remember how it caught almost everyone (myself included) completely off guard.

(As a side-note on the above: there was an interview with Mr. Wan in which he stated that the film initially received a PG-13 rating because of its lack of graphic mayhem. Concerned that hard-core Horror fans wouldn't see the film without an R, he added scenes of gore cut into the narrative to boost the visceral reaction of the Motion Picture Association and ensure the desired higher rating.

I was very disappointed in Mr. Wan upon hearing that; I disapprove of that heartily. Just as I would reject any attempts to pressure an artist to cut material from his work in order to get a lower rating, I'm unhappy with the concept of adding gratuitous violence to increase a rating. An artist needs to trust his vision, and stand behind it. If the film felt complete without the added scenes, I feel Mr. Wan should have stood his ground. AS it turns out, I don't remember the added carnage adding or detracting from the movie; it was the mood of the piece that was so effective.

This is a dubious debate in the community among some fans that feel that Horror and Dark Fantasy can only be effective when its as graphic and unrelenting as possible. I consider that nonsense; as if gore and violence are the only ingredients to a fearful tale. I've discussed this previously in another essay (“July 2011”, found in my THOUGHTS & REVERIES Archives); all I'll say again on the subject is several of the most frightening films recognized as modern classic have been rated PG, including JAWS, THE BIRDS, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978).)

SAW was created with Mr. Wan's long-time collaborator Leigh Whannell, who also appears in several of Mr. Wan's films. The partnership has been extremely successful; it began when the two first met in film school. Mr. Whannell co-starred in SAW and wrote the script from Mr. Wan's story. He did the same with Mr. Wan's next film, DEAD SILENCE, which I sadly haven't seen. Concerning a collection of demonic ventriloquist dolls, the film was taken from Mr. Wan's control by the studio. Although many agree it contains effective scenes of terror, attributable to Mr. Wan's skills, it's considered his weakest effort.

Disheartened by his attempts to work within the studio system, Mr. Wan returned to independent filmmaking with his next Horror film, INSIDIOUS, working once again with a script by Mr. Whannell. And a triumphant return it was. I've spoken about it elsewhere (in that same essay referenced above). Firmly in the Lewton tradition, its scares were based on misdirection and mood; there was no graphic violence, but there was a great deal of fear, of things half-seen out of the corner of your eye that raised the goosebumps and deepened anxiety. (My own favorite: the mother carries the laundry from room to room, the camera following her, not noticing the quick image of the small boy standing in the corner of one room.)

The characters (Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Angus Simpson, Mr. Whannell again and especially Lin Shayne, all exemplary performances) were believable and smart; no one fell victim to the usual “I'm going off by myself alone even though I know danger lurks around every corner.” And when was the last time the occupants of a haunted house decided the best idea was to simply move? (It doesn't work, and the movie explains why.) Because there was no extreme mayhem, the film was rated PG-13, and Mr. Wan was quite satisfied. And the film was frightening, proving once and or all (although some of us didn't require evidence) that terror and carnage need not go hand in hand.

(I'm also pleased to say that the film was made for a very modest amount, less than two million dollars, which meant that there was little reliance on grand-scale special effects, meaning that the story dealt primarily with the characters and their relationships, as Lewton had in the past. Audiences responded enthusiastically; the film made over fifty million dollars, recouping their modest investment easily.)

This past year saw Mr. Wan's masterpiece. THE CONJURING, quite simply, was one of the best films I'd seen in a long time, let alone one of the best Horror films. Using the same techniques from INSIDIOUS, but bumping up the visceral emotional intensity with the subject matter, the film drew an R rating even though it was almost as free of violence as INSIDIOUS. (The fact that the fear was being directed at a family with children was the main reason for the higher rating, and I agree; as a thrill ride I think it earned its stronger rating.)

Once again we had believable characters; intelligent, caring and honest with a strong moral core. Based supposedly on a true incident (I'll not comment on its veracity; I'll simply note that, like Oliver Stone's JFK, it isn't necessary to believe the truth of the incident to be entertained by the film) the central characters are Ed and Lorraine Warren , two ghosthunters whose most famous investigation was the Amityville house. Played brilliantly by Patrick Wilson (from INSIDIOUS) and Vera Farmiga, the two are the lynchpin of the proceedings, ably assisted by strong work by the family (Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, Shanley Caswell and Hayley McFarland) and their bystanders involved (John Brotherton as a local law enforcement officer and Shannon Kook as the Warren's assistant).

I can't say enough about the writing, acting and performances. I'll also not give anything away because every scare is built carefully on the situations involved, without any cheap manufactured jumps. That doesn't means they don't exist; I'll whisper that one of the most effective seat-leapers concerns the conclusion of a child's game.) THE CONJURING is relentless and counter-punching, an example of Mr. Wan at the top of his game. (And I want to direct several kudos to the screenwriters; for the first time working with a script by other then Mr. Whannell, Chad and Cary Hayes have done an exemplary job with the screenplay.)

Which brings us to this year's effort by Mr. Wan, INSIDIOUS 2. Many have remarked that a sequel wasn't necessary; others have enjoyed the continuation of the story began earlier, but all agree it is made with the same care and talent as the first. All the original cast has returned, the script is again by Mr. Whannell from a story by Mr. Wan, and although the visceral impact has been ratcheted up from the previous film, it's still a movie of macabre ambiance rather than simple jolts.

I remain impressed my Mr. Wan's skill with narrative, with his ability to successfully translate a screenplay onto film, with his naturalistic way of handling his actors and set pieces. Most importantly, I'm impressed with the adult nature of his work, eschewing the teenage sample audiences that most studios gear their Dark Fantasies towards. The films are intelligent and mature dealings with material that, in the wrong hands could easily be absurd and ridiculous. (The nature of Weird Fiction and films, unfortunately.)

I'm also impressed that he never seems to take the easy way, always stressing the situation and characters and not creating false frights that disrupt the flow of the tale. He has a strong respect for his audience, never spoon-feeding them the story bout expecting them to pay attention and allowing it to build naturally, with unease created by the most mundane methods and venues: a child's hide-and-seek game, an old record playing on a turntable (you'll never experience “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” the same way again); a music box with a built-in mirror. All are more disquieting and unnerving than a hundred knife-wielding masked killers.

I think Mr. Lewton would have been as impressed by Mr. Wan as I am; I think he'd enthusiastically greet his next work and possibly want to collaborate. (Among the directors Mr. Lewton supervised were Robert Wise of THE HAUNTING, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and WEST SIDE STORY and Jacques Tourneur of CURSE OF THE DEMON and OUT OF THE PAST.) I think most importantly that Mr. Lewton would respond to Mr. Wan's use of atmosphere and find a kindred soul.

Now, sadly, Mr. Wan is stepping away from the Dark Fantastic for a while to work on other projects. (His next film is to be THE FAST & THE FURIOUS 7…alas…) While I certainly sympathize with his desire to try other genres and types of filmmaking, I do hope that he won't be taking too long a vacation from our field. I think we need him desperately, and I eagerly await his hopeful return.

(I should point out, for the sake of completion, that Mr. Wan also directed a straight suspense thriller, DEATH SENTENCE, starring Kevin Bacon, John Goodman and Kelly Preston, with a script by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers from a novel by the sensational author Brian Garfield. Not having seen it, I can't vouch for its quality, but I'd be greatly surprised to find it lacking.)



 

 

In addition to being the traditional time for ghostly tales, the Christmas Season is also a time of sharing good will and merriment with friends and family. Quite often that sharing takes the form of exchanging gifts, and a great deal of time is spent searching for just the right present for those special someones in your life.

If the person you're shopping for has unusual or macabre tastes, as befitting the Season, you may be having a difficult time finding just the right gift. Never let it be said that I would leave my human companions in a lurch during times of need. Therefore, without further ado, I give you my annual Gift Guide for a haunting Christmas Season, bringing to your attention to some items that have caught my fancy in the past few months. (You can access the websites for further information or to order each item by clicking on the images.)

If your ladyfriend is looking for the perfect fashion accessory for her Gothic ensemble, may I offer this wonderful Leather Sculpted Skull Purse? More of an accruement than an actual functioning carryall (according to the artists, Brian Griffin, of GriffinLeather), it can't be loaded up as a regular purse can. But for those lovely Goth Ladies stepping out on New Years Eve, it will certainly be an eye-catching compliment to the corset and fishnet stockings.



For the Gothic Gentlemen of your acquaintance, in his black top hat and long leather coast, may I recommend this fine timepiece to complete his attire? Complete with silver chain, this watch would be equally at home with a fan of Steampunk as an aficionado of the macabre.



For those looking to expand their wardrobe, might I recommend our Clothing Department? This extraordinary item can be purchased in either T-Shirts for summerwear, or hoodies for the chilly weather. It's a portrait of Edgar Allen Poe using text from his poem “The Raven".



If your loved one would like something specifically to keep them warm through the Winter months, perhaps this item from Sweaterfest would be appropriate, commemorating the literally chilling locale of Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING. (But if the wearer becomes obsessed with typing incessantly, be sure to get him out of the house more frequently…)



Toy collectors and fans of vintage television will be thrilled with this set of figures from the first family of Horror (with apologies to Charles Addams). The Munsters – Herman, Lily, Grandpa, Marilyn and Eddie – are complete in glorious black-and-white, as befitting their original broadcast. And though I may quibble a bit with the artistic presentation (I don't think Herman is completely successful, and Eddie should be half as tall) I think they're a handsome collection that will look splendid on someone's shelf.



Do you have a music devotee on your list? Someone who enjoys listening to film scores and soundtracks? Then they will undoubtedly enjoy this splendid new album by the renowned Gothic musicians Midnight Syndicate. Inspired by the classic Universal Horror Films, “Monsters Of Legend” pays tribute to the dark themes and musical motifs of those glorious works of black & white cinema.



Finally, we turn towards one of the genuine macabre denizens of the traditional Christmas celebration: the Christmas Devil Krampus. Of European origin, Krampus is the demonic assistant of Santa Claus; while Santa brings presents to reward the good children, according to legend Krampus accompanies him to whip the bad children (with his ever present switch of hickory branches) or kidnap them for devouring at a later time. Krampus's popularity is growing annually in America , with many cities hosting Krampus Night celebrations on December 12, the night devoted to him, where partiers dress in elaborate costumes and engage in revelry and debauchery. (For more information I refer you to last year's Christmas essay in my THOUGHTS & REVERIES Archive, and to the Krampus website on my LINKS Page.)

There is a new splendid volume out by author Monte Beauchamp. “Krampus, The Devil of Christmas” explains all about the demon, his background, his legends and his popularity. It also includes wonderful vintage illustrations from Krampus greeting cards and illustrations; you'll be paging through the book slowly over the cold winter months, treasuring the visual history of this formerly neglected Season celebrity.



And for a more tangible presentation of the Anti-Claus, the Archie McPhee Company has produced a glass Christmas ornament for your tree, complete with squirming children in a sack, to offset the candy kanes and sugarplums hanging there beside it.



A nd with that, I wish you a very Merry Christmas, with a reminder that it is always better to give than receive.

 

 

Sitting on a table in my crypt is a small package of sugar cubes shaped like skulls, a gift courtesy of a unique company called “Dem Bones".

Dem Bones creates food, soap, jewelry and other decorations in the shape of skulls and skeletons, very reminiscent of the Mexican celebration Dia De Los Muertos, or “The Day Of The Dead". I met them when they were selling their wares at their both at the All Hallows Fantasy Faire in Sonora this past October. They seemed delighted to see me (for obvious reasons) and spend some time with me, and I found their inventory delightful.

Among their selections, including the skull sugar cubes, are Vampire Skull Soap-On-A-Rope (complete with coffin packaging), Herb Garden Tombstone Stakes, ceramic Shadow Box Headstones, Day Of The Dead Sugar Skull Ornaments, ceramic Hanging Skull Outdoor Decorations, Lady Catrina Skull Earrings and other assorted minutiae.

I'm sorry that I don't have the name of the artist who created these pieces and confections; she remains anonymous on her website. We know that she has a degree in Applied Art & Design, and has always had a love of things Halloween, Dia De Los Muertos, Edward Gorey and macabre things that go bump in the night. I think that love shows through in her imaginative designs, and I suspect you'll appreciate them as well.

For everyone celebrating the Day Of The Dead, Dem Bones offerings are a perfect compliment for the holiday. Although it's a bit late for this year's celebration, I will point out the Christmas is approaching, the traditional time for the ghostly and uncanny, and these would make wonderful stocking stuffers as well. And there's always next year's Halloween and Dia De Los Muertos events.

You'll also find a link to Dem Bones on my LINKS Page (what a coincidence!) for future reference; for now, I hope you'll peruse and enjoy their selections. Should you decide to order and purchase, tell them the spectre in white sent you.

To find there Etsy Store, click on the image below.


 

 

Last year for the Halloween Season, I invited you to build some of your own decorations and toys designed by Ray O'Bannon from his wonderful webtown RavensBright. (You can find him by exploring my LINKS Page. This year I invite you to do the same with a small difference – you can literally taste the results of your creations!

Our website this month is artists Ray Kiem's site “Haunted Dimensions” (which you can access from my LINKS Page. On the page you'll find other links to "The Knoll", a 3D Interactive excursion into a haunted mansion, several model paper models based on various haunts, and a blog of visits to events and attractions of interest, including the BlobFest celebration in Phoenixville PA (site of the filming of that drive-in classic) and Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. His site truly is a celebration of everything that makes up the idea of 3-Dimensional Horror.

But what caught my eye initially was the linked section entitled “Gingerbread Dimensions”. Sure enough, after clicking on the link I found myself staring at several macabre yet delicious-looking recreations of haunted houses, all suitable for serving and devouring during the “treats” portion of “Trick-or-Treat”, including one based on the famous Haunted Mansion at Disneyland and World.



Take a look at the photos and tell me these aren't inducing a sugar-craving that touches your Gothic sensibilities. They are wonderful representations of eating as art, and imaginative art at that. For Halloween and October Season aficionados who mourn that Christmas gets the bulk of the Holiday Season attention (and I know there are some that do), these can give any Santa's Workshop a run for its money.

Each house comes with a design by Mr. Kiem himself, as well as recipes to make gingerbread and icing. There are step-by-step instructions and ingredient listings, and perhaps the most inspiring of all, there are photos of creations from around the world, many of them with their own unique spins on the original design.

Now I won't pretend that this is an easy project to undertake, but I believe it might be an enjoyable one. Be advised, however, that no matter how your attempt turns out, you are forbidden to be discouraged or distraught at your efforts! All art projects are learning experiences, and the idea is to enjoy yourself while honing your skills.



If the first attempt is not a complete success, what of it? Devour it, and try again another time! Do not become downhearted and consider your efforts a failure; to quote the wonderful line from Richard Matheson's “What Dreams May Come”, “The only sin is not trying!” If you feel you cannot follow this philosophy, consider carefully whether you want to undertake the project. Remember: if it isn't fun, it isn't worth doing. (And again; so what if it isn't perfect? You'll have tried, you'll have learned, you'll take your experience and put it towards the next attempt. And…your lack of success will probably be just as delicious as your triumphs!

And who knows? You may just triumph right out of the gate the first time!)

This looks like a fine Halloween project to attempt with the family, a coming together to create some of the magic of the Halloween Season right in your kitchen. I hope all will attempt it in that spirit, and if you do create your mansions, I hope you'll share them both with Mr. Kiem (who is as enthusiastic about them as any of the actual bakers!) and myself! Have fun, and spooky eating to all!

To log onto “Gingerbread Dimensions”, click on the image below.


 

 

I've gone on at length about the scarcity of quality films on the CHILLER cable channel, so much so that when a quality product is presented, I'm often as much astounded as I am entertained. I suppose it proves the old adage “Even a broken clock is correct twice a day.” And don't even get me started talking about the SYFY Channel (formerly the SCIFI Channel, to Harlan Ellison's consternation). You need only point to SHARKNADO. My Lord! There are times when I look at my human companions in the Dark Fantastic community and shake my head in utter disbelief. The affection for this piece of cinema (using the phrase very lightly) baffles me completely. Perhaps its an age difference, a generation gap of sorts, but truly? SHARKNADO? Never have so many brains dribbled out of so many ears with so much enthusiasm…

Ahem…well, before I began digressing, I simply wanted to say that I'm currently a marvelous television series being broadcast on CHILLER that initially ran for four seasons on SYFY as original programming! (My ectoplasmic mind may well explode at the ramifications of this, but onward bravely…)

With my annual revels at several Renaissance and Medieval festivals beginning this month, and my association with my brethren representatives of the Faerie and Gentry community, I want to offer my unqualified endorsement for LOST GIRL, the travails and triumphs of a lady named Bo who discovers after many years that she is member of the legendary Fae that live beside humanity in modern times.

Bo Dennis, played by Anna Silk, has led a lonely existence because of her ability to drain the lifeforce from her sexual partners and feed her own strength. She is referred to at times as a Succubus, but that isn't exactly correct as we apply the term; one of the things the series does very well is extrapolate the various myths and legends – vampires, werewolves, ghosts – as actually ancient members of the Fae and Faerie race that become corrupted superstitions in human memory and history.

Bo discovers her identity, discovers that the Fae exist beside humanity (in a timeless, unique landscape that is part modern urban and part steampunk/cyberpunk pastiche), and discovers that, like warring Mafia families, the Fae have divided themselves into two bands: those who serve the Light, and those who serve Darkness. Each have human compatriots that assist them (or are enslaved by them, in another light) and each side recognizes the unique talents and abilities of Bo, with both applying pressure to have her join their sides in the struggle for dominance or simple détente.

But Bo is a fascinating character; in addition to her life-draining abilities she is fiercely intelligent and a fearless warrior with natural abilities sharpened by years of self-training. She is bisexual; enjoying the attentions and affections of both sexes, and just as she refuses to limit herself in her passions, so does she refuses to limit herself politically. She won't take sides, remaining neutral, making her a target for both. Her friends include her young human roommate Kenzi (Ksenia Solo), a local Fae mentor and tavern keeper Trick McCorrigan (Rick Howland), and two compatriots, both sexual partners: Dyson (Kris Holden-Ried), a Fae shapechanger/werewolf and Dr. Lauren Lewis (Zoie Palmer), a human doctor beholden to the master of the Darkness. With them Bo tries to make her way through both human and Faerie worlds, trying to discover her past and learn what others plan for her future.

Obviously from my description, this is an adult show, intelligently conceived and produced. The sexual politics and couplings are important to the foundation and integrity of the characters and drama, and are not (for the most part) played exploitatively. The stories are laced with good dark macabre humor and wonderful touches of authentic Celtic and European mythology concerning these ancient beings. The performances are letter perfect, especially Ms. Solo and Mr. Howland.

But this is Ms. Silk's show from the beginning; she is the hub and lynchpin around which everything revolves, and she shoulders the series effortlessly. Her Bo is beautifully three-dimensional; not merely heroic and noble but in turns stubborn, selfish, petulant, enraged, somber, playful, seductive, wanton, short-sighted, grief-stricken, paranoid and arrogant. In short, she's is an individual rich with life and detail, one of the best Dark Fantastic characters since Buffy Summers picked up a wooden stake and Carl Kolchack went searching for a headline.

Mind you, I didn't say she was one of the best female characters, although the synopsis above hopefully makes it clear that this series is heavily tilted towards the feminine. I find that an exemplary thing, and applaud it; we most certainly can use more of the female perspective in the Dark Fantastic. (Which is why Women In Horror Month is such an important event.) But LOST GIRL's Bo represents more than just a feminist version of Blade or Batman; her character, and all others on the show, for that matter is drawn exceptionally well, and the mythology of the series interweaves with the narrative and carries the events along in a suspenseful and wondrous manner, in the full meaning of Sense of Wonder. Only the Winchester brothers and their supporting cast on SUPERNATURAL resonates as well with me as the LOST GIRL family, and for that I offer full kudos to creator and writer Michelle Lovretta.

The series isn't perfect of course. (What is?) Two things in particular make my teeth grind; one, that with all the strength, intelligence and confidence Bo possesses, it's still often left to big, brawny Dyson to arrive and save the day at times. Nonsense. Even worse, his attitude towards her lost past, both as lover and protector, is infuriatingly paternalistic and patronizing, refusing to divulge what he knows about her history to her “for her own protection”. Pbbbbbtttt!! Despite the fact that this is used to continue the mysteries in the series, I find it terribly sexist: imagine Alfred doing the same thing to Batman, or M keeping something from James Bond.

(You may point to the Powers-That-Be doing the same thing to Fox Mulder on THE X FILES, but it happened far less frequently then and with less simpering; often when forcibly confronted by Mulder the participants told him what he wanted to know, albeit reluctantly. It doesn't happen that way on LOST GIRL because, after all, she's just a girl, and we have to keep her safe. Again: Pbbbbbttttt! )

The other thing that bothers me is from an aesthetic viewpoint: far too much of the action takes place in that industrial warehouse/urban decay, crumbling factory look that's become associated with too much modern Fantasy. Perhaps it's done (indeed, overdone) to emphasize the Goth edginess and “realism” of the supernatural community; most non-fans do tend to think of Tinkerbell and the Tooth Fairy when contemplating the Faerie Realm. But I think it's as much to do with budgetary constraints; it's much easier to film in a run-down warehouse than to create a wondrous and imaginative set decoration and costuming. Still, it gives the series as sense of deja vu at times, as if we've seen it all before too much.

But don't let that dissuade you; the series is fantastic, in the best sense of that word, and immerses the viewer in macabre delights. Anyone with a love of ancient lore and Faerie legend will find much worthwhile in the show, and others can simply follow the hair-raising, unnerving and occasionally horrific adventures of Bo Dennis in her journey to self discovery. LOST GIRL is a pleasure; you may catch it on CHILLER on Monday evenings, or watch the entire series on Netflix. I think you'll find it well worth your time.

To find more information on LOST GIRL, click on the image below.


 

 

I've gone on record several times, both here in my crypt and elsewhere, for my absolute love and devotion to the wonderful novel “A Wrinkle In Time”. Found on many lists as one of the best books ever written, one of the most important books ever written, and books that have changed individual's lives (and I agree with all three sentiments), “A Wrinkle In Time” truly meets the standard of a modern classic. I've given it to so many of my human companions, and I envy their first experience.

Because of my devotion to the book (and to its author, the late Madeline L'Engle; one of my great regrets is, like Mr. Bradbury, I was never able to meet her in person and tell her what an influence she'd been), I am rather protective of it. I'm rather critical of attempts to adapt it to stage and screen (the 2003 film was terrible!); this even extends to recorded readings of the book. I prefer my friends to discover first-hand the joys of the story through the words and images created solely by the author on the printed page.

So I'm pleased to announce that I'm very happy with the graphic novelization of “A Wrinkle In Time”, adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson, and find it a respectful, sincere and magnificent reimagining of the novel. Apparently I'm not alone, because the adaptation was recently awarded the 2013 Eisner Award for Best Publication for Teens. (The Eisner Awards are given out by the comic book industry for creative achievement, and named after the late, astonishing Wil Eisner, creator of The Spirit, among other things).

Before seeing the adaptation, I was unfamiliar with Ms. Larson's work. She is the author of five original graphic novels, including “Who Is AC?”, “Gray Horses”, “Salamander Dream”, and the short film BITTER ORANGE. She's been nominated for awards in the US, Canada and Europe, and her work has appeared in the New York Times and several anthologies. Some have compared her work to the Japanese Manga illustrating style; while I see some of that, I find her more in the same school as Mr. Eisner and Kelly Freas, two artists I also admire greatly.

Do I consider the graphic novel a total success? Not completely, I'm afraid. I wish it had been illustrated in color, as I think befits the material, and some of her illustrations don't quite seem to capture the same wonder as Ms. L'Engle's prose. (But to be fair, that may be my shortcoming; as Ms. Larson has pointed out in several interviews, rereading the book made her realize how much of it she'd previously see through her own eyes and not the descriptions of Ms. L'Engle; she wanted to return to the faithful vision of the author. A very good point.)

In the end, I still prefer the original text, of course. But is the graphic novel worthy? Yes, very, very much so. It's a splendid piece of work, one you can safely pass along to your favorite young person to free their imaginations and allow them to soar.

As the school year approaches and you're looking for a fine gift to begin the year properly, look no further. If you know friends who are fans of the graphic novel form, this should fit perfectly on their shelves. If you are acquainted with young ladies looking for fiction with a strong, courageous female protagonist, they will enjoy spending time with Meg Murray.

And if you're a Madeline L'Engle completist like myself, you'll want to place this delightful edition beside her other books. You can find out more or place an order by clicking on the image below. If you'd like to learn more about Ms. Larson, you can visit her official website by clicking HERE.

 

 

Richard Matheson did not actually create the character of Carl Kolchak, the intrepid, rumpled, idealistic and hard-nose reporter who found himself continually brushing against supernatural forces. It was author Jeff Rice who first brought him to life in the novel “The Kolchak Tapes”, later retitled “The Night Stalker” after the television film adapted from it.

But a great deal of who we consider Kolchak was the product of Mr. Matheson. In the novel Carl Kolchak is a fat, slovenly man of Rumanian background who grew up hearing stories of the vampire legends; consequently he believes in them immediately upon discovering that one may be hunting contemporary Las Vegas . Mr. Matheson saw a more acerbic, witty and cynical individual who slowly came to believe in vampires from the evidence collected through the course of his investigation.

(And it must be pointed out that a great deal of the character came from actor Darren McGavin, who supplied Kolchak's rapid-fire word-a-minute delivery, gallows humor and heel-with-a-heart-of-gold charm. Both Mr. Matheson and Mr. Rice agree that Mr. McGavin was perfect casting in the role.)

Carl Kolchak first made his appearance as a Las Vegas crime beat reporter in THE NIGHT STALKER, which went on to critical and ratings acclaim, becoming (at the time) the highest rated movie broadcast on network television. And because success in Hollywood nearly always demands another outing, a sequel was planned a year later, dropping Kolchak into Seattle investigating a series of murders committed by a modern-day Jack The Ripper.

THE NIGHT STRANGLER was an original tale by Mr. Matheson, inspired by his vacation to Seattle and his exploration of “Underground Seattle”, the remains of the old city ruins destroyed by fire that still exist as a tourist destination underneath the rebuilt city. Mr. Matheson thought it would be a perfect location for a tale of Terror, and sent our hero down into its depths to confront a mad alchemist. Again the critics and public responded with enthusiasm; many (including myself) consider THE NIGHT STRANGLER to be an even better film that its predecessor, and the high point in Mr. Kolchak's monster-hunting career.

Alas, because of various conflicts involved between producer/director Dan Curtis (creator of DARK SHADOWS) and Mr. McGavin, and the desire by the networks to spin off Kolchak's exploits into a weekly series, the third follow-up, a film called THE NIGHT KILLERS was never produced. Scripted by Mr. Matheson and William F. Nolan (author of “Logan's Run”; he'd previously worked for Mr. Curtis on the film THE NORLISS TAPES, about a Kolchak-esque investigator of the paranormal) from an idea by Mr. Nolan, the movie would have found Carl Kolchak living in Hawaii and investigation a conspiracy involving replacing government officials with their robot duplicates.

Misters Matheson and Nolan, good friends who'd previously collaborated on the telefilm TRILOGY OF TERROR, adapting three of Mr. Matheson's short stories for Mr. Curtis, thought the script was terrific, and were very disappointed that it was never produced. Mr. Curtis was also enthused about it, but his feud with Mr. McGavin precluded their working together at that time. (Sadly, the two men did eventually bury the hatchet, but never chose to pursue another Kolchak vehicle; Mr. Curtis had moved beyond the Horror genre by that time.)

Interestingly, Mr. McGavin was of the minority opinion that THE NIGHT KILLERS script was terrible, and didn't want to invest his time in it. And, admittedly, the script is a deviation from the other two Kolchak films, probably due to Mr. Nolan's influence. Reading it, one is reminded of THE X FILES series; in addition to the robot duplicates there are UFO sightings and a wide-spread government conspiracy. It would have definitely stretched the Kolchak concept, not in a bad way in my opinion, but providing a possible direction off into more bizarre ventures than the classic monsters found each week in KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER. (And as Chris Carter always stated that THE X FILES were heavily influenced by his love of THE NIGHT STALKER and Kolchak, would have established even greater evidence to his claim.)

You may be wondering about this time how I'm so knowlegable about a proposed television film that never made it past the script stage, and the machinations behind it's untimely demise. The fact is that I'm holding in my hands at this very moment a handsome volume by the wonderful small press publisher Gauntlet Press titled “Richard Matheson's Kolchak Scripts, Edited with an Introduction by Mark Dawidziak”. A signed limited-edition volume, signed by none other than Mr. Matheson himself!

(A brief word about Gauntlet Press: if you are in the least bit serious about our beloved genre of the Dark Fantastic and the rich history therein, you no doubt own one of these exquisite volumes, or perhaps several. For the uninitiated, Gauntlet Press does not publish books; they assemble labours of true love and distinction that are a joy to behold. Editor Barry Hoffman, himself an author of no small reputation, created Gauntlet to publish long out-of-print works by pioneers of Horror, Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction in literature and the performing arts. These editions are usually signed by the author or authors, and include extra bits of minutiae and rarities that make these books very special indeed.

Among the many works published are Ray Bradbury's screenplay of IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, which includes the screenplay outlines, notes written on Mr. Bradbury's typewriter, photos and reviews; the series “As Timeless As Infinity: The Complete Twilight Zone Episodes of Rod Serling” which proudly adorn my bookshelves, each volume featuring the actual pages of Mr. Serling's scripts, including handwritten cross-outs and notes, as well as photos and interviews of the performers involved; and hardcover editions of the Repairman Jack novels by F. Paul Wilson. Go to their website by clicking on the image below and peruse some of their treasures, but be warned: you may develop a serious case of naked desire…)



“Richard Matheson's Kolchak Scripts” contains much more than the scripts themselves, of course. There are interviews with all the participants (Dan Curtis, Mr. Matheson, and others) detailing the anecdotal history of all the films, behind the scenes productions stills, artwork from the graphic novels inspired by the movies, and more. These are the first draft screenplays, and it's interesting to compare them to the finished product, where some rewriting took place for content and time and budget constraints.

(Some of these were for the better; the final denouement in the finished film THE NIGHT STALKER is much more dramatic than it's presented in the screenplay; the producers decide that actually seeing and hearing Kolchak's fate at the hands of the Las Vegas authorities would be more powerful than hearing about it second-hand as in the script, and they were correct.)

If you are a fan of KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER as a series; if you re a fan of the telefilms, and even moreso, if you are a fan of Richard Matheson, this books details the fascinating transformation from adapting from the printed page to putting the images onto the screen. I can't recommend it more, and wish you hours of joy perusing the contents. This is where it all began, back in the 1970s; so many were influenced by THE NIGHT STALKER and continue to be today. This is the how it happened.

To purchase “Richard Matheson's Kolchak Scripts”, click on the image below.


 

 

I'm sorry to confess that I have not seen one episode of nor read any of the graphic novels of THE WALKING DEAD. This is not intended as a criticism; people whose opinion I admire tell me what a wonderful program (or read) it is; I'm familiar with several of the actors and have enjoyed them in other roles, I've admired the work of creator and producer Frank Darabont (immensely in regards to THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE MAJESTIC, less so with THE GREEN MILE, and I refuse to see THE MIST because of his tampering with Stephen King's original and darkly poetic finale).

I don't have a good reason for ignoring it; I don't subscribe to the channel that airs it, but it's available to anyone on Netflix and other sources. I think part of it may have to do with zombie fatigue; there are just so many films about the undead – some interesting, most much, much less – that I just can't work up the enthusiasm for it. I'm certain it's a quality production, and I would probably enjoy it a great deal.

But I am familiar with it, and one of its main themes – that humanity will always be the greatest threat to itself, even beyond a “supernatural” or apocalyptic crisis – is also the mainframe of a fascinating, gorgeous and powerful independent film named STAKE LAND; the difference being, as I'm sure you surmised from the title, that one work deals with zombies and the other with vampires. But STAKE LAND is not simply a vampiric twist on THE WALKING DEAD; it blazes its own trail and emerges as one of the finest films of the past several years.

I had heard good things prior to its limited release from publicity material in “Rue Morgue” magazine; it looked to be a wonderful, serious, adult venture. I stumbled across the edited version on the Chiller Channel (which goes to answer the cynics that it can find a worthy film to present if it simply looks hard enough) and was drawn into it instantly. It is beautifully photographed, superbly acted by all involved, written with a splendid ear for natural dialogue, and assembled as a true labor of love between writer/director Jim Mickle and co-writer/actor Nick Damici (who also takes the lead role of Mister, a grizzled, silent vampire hunter in the manner of the best of Clint Eastwood.

The film is basically a road movie. Some time in the near future, a plague of vampires has decimated the world. Civilization has collapsed into scattered small communities across the nation; some relatively stable and reminiscent of the frontier, others chaotic, fascistic and anarchistic. The vampires are not simply the blood-drinkers from legend; there are several species, from almost rabid, animalistic packs to the more traditional human, thinking corpses. A young man named Martin (played to perfection by Connor Paolo) narrates the film; after losing his family to a vampire attack he is found and taken under the wing of Mister, taught the vampire hunting skills, and together the two set off for the far north, seeking a mythical place named New Eden where there is supposed to be safe haven.

Along the way the duo encounter and befriend several other travelers, the former nun named Sister (played by an unrecognizable Kelly McGillis, making a long-awaited return to the screen), young Belle (genre favorite Danielle Harris in a warm, heartbreaking performance) expecting her first child, and former soldier Willie (Sean Nelson). As they travel the backroads and deserted highways, passing through the myriad of communities on their route, they encounter kindness and treachery, friendship and betrayal, peace and violence, despair and hope. As with THE WALKING DEAD, the threats of the vampires pale before the inhumanity of man itself, personified by the cult religious thugs named The Brotherhood, lead by Jebediah Loven (a hypnotic Michael Cereris; theatergoers may recognize the Tony Award-winning performer from his turn as John Wilkes Booth in Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS and as the title character from the cabaret revival of SWEENET TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET).

The movie is colored in muted, magnificent hues of Autumn grays, browns and blacks, tipping its hat to THE GRAPES OF WRATH, BADLANDS and BOUND FOR GLORY as much as any Horror film. Indeed, although there is a great deal of threatening terror and brutality, the overall sense of the movie is not one of fear but if sadness; how fragile life can be, and the final truth, in the words of Rod Serling from a memorable TWILIGHT ZONE episode, “…For Civilization to survive, it must remain civilized.” In this sense, STAKE LAND is probably closer to Cormac McCarthy “The Road” than “Dracula”, but it is a journey well worth taking. Both Mr. Mickle and Mr. Damici have fashioned a splendid fable of the Dark Fantastic and created a genuine work of Americana , albeit viewed through the glass darkly.

Long after the movie is finished, there are images that will remain with the viewer: the small town walled off from the vampire threat by an old locomotive that is rolled aside to allow entrance; Mister's purse filled with his collection of vampire fangs taken from his kills; the killing of a former novice companion of Sister's, the young shopkeeper enthralled by the pair, offering them “…anything you want, on the house…” and wanting to hear of their adventures. The world created is completely believable and the audience is immersed in the often heartbreaking struggles as the companions move ever closer to their destination – and lose one another along the way.

Be warned: as darkly poetic as the film is, there is indeed terror and shock and violence; the opening has come under particular criticism for its unrelenting images (I thought it well and appropriate, necessary to set up the situation and the world portrayed, but it is disturbing.) I urge you to work past it and continue watching, and I think you'll be rewarded with a thought-provoking, honest drama that will leave touch your emotions deeply and sincerely.

And of all the haunting images that remain with me from the film, the one I return to again is one of quiet joy and hope; Mister, a young girl of about five in his arms, as he whirls her dancing through the crowd at a celebratory hoedown during an all-too-brief moment of respite, a smile creasing his features for the first time throughout the movie, her shyly hanging on and smiling back. It is that heart that makes STAKE LAND so rich and vital. Well done, to all involved with this very special movie.

One final comment, offered for your consideration.

STAKE LAND was filmed on a very low budget (some of it in some of my old haunting grounds outside Pottstown , PA , about an hour or so from Philadelphia , making it, along with Mr. Romero's work, another extraordinary piece of Dark Fantasy from the Keystone State ). It received very little advertisement and an extremely limited released. According to the Internet Movie Database, the film cost approximately $650,000 and grossed only $18,469 during its theatrical run.

The almost universally panned remake of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET cost approximately $35,000,000 and brought in $63,059,655.


 

 

As I've mentioned several times, I'm always hesitant to recommend anything that I haven't seen or experienced personally. After all, my human companions trust me to offer the highest quality suggestions for their reading, viewing and entertainment pleasures, and I hold that trust most seriously.

However, occasionally something comes to my attention that seems so special and extraordinary that I can't help but bring it to your attention in the belief that you'll find it as exciting as I do. This is one of those instances.

At my recent Walpurgisnacht event, I mentioned that one of the most famous references to the holiday in literature was in Bram Stoker's classic novel “Dracula”. Jonathan Harker departs for Count Dracula's castle on April 30 th - Walpurgisnacht - and is warned by the peasant woman not to go to that cursed place on that particular night.

“Dracula” is one of my favorite books of the Dark Fantastic; I feel it is a deserved classic, a wonderfully exciting, visceral read that catapults the subject headlong into a narrative both bloody and engrossing. Mr. Stoker was a fine writer and storyteller, and he commanded the attention of his audience most ably in this volume, defining the modern vampire mythology and tale.

There are so many amazing moments, many that haven't been fully captured in the many film and stage adaptations. The most vivid and terrifying, my favorite, has to be Mr. Harker staring out of his chamber window and watching Dracula crawl headfirst down the side wall of his castle, bat-like. Few who have read that passage have ever forgotten it.

Because of the nature of the novel's structure, presented as a series of letters, it probably lends itself far better to the audiobook format than many other works. I'm pleased to present for your consideration the latest such effort, produced by Audible Audio, and featuring an all-star cast of fine British actors and actresses, lead by two extraordinary talents: Alan Cumming (currently of THE GOOD WIFE, previously of EYES WIDE SHUT, X2, CABERET and NICHOLAS NICKLEBY) as Dr. Seward, and Tim Curry (of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, LEGEND, IT, CLUE and EARTH 2) as Dr. Van Helsing!

The production presents an unabridged version of the novel, clocking in at over 15 hours (perfect for those long car rides) and nominated for the audiobook 2013 Audie Awards for both Classic and Multi-Voiced Performance. As a storyteller, I appreciate the intent of the producers to recreate the novel as a series of readings; in their own words, “By returning to Stoker's original storytelling structure - a series of letters and journal entries voiced by Jonathan Harker, Dr. Van Helsing, and other characters - with an all-star cast of narrators, we've sought to recapture its originally intended horror and power.” I find this wonderfully exciting.

Unheard, I still believe this to be a splendid presentation, and I don't think you'll regret your time spent in such gifted company. So beware the halls of Carfax Abby, sail with the dread crew of the Demeter , avoid the Borgo Pass , especially after dark - and enjoy!

For more information or to order the audiobook, click on the image below.


 

 

The template of the starving artist, neglected by society until after his demise, is hardly a work of fiction. In fact many artists, from Gauguin to Mozart to John Kennedy Toole can be offered as examples.

In the Horror genre, the starving artist is even more common. Mr. Poe, for all his fame and recognition during his lifetime, met his demise in debt and poverty, some of it due to his reckless living, true, but much of it to the lack of serious appreciation by critics of the time. H. P. Lovecraft suffered a similar fate, and wasn't even given the satisfaction of being recognized in his lifetime outside of the fan base that made up “Weird Tales” pulp magazine. Indeed, Mr. Lovecraft died near penniless, certain that his stories and what little fame he possessed would die with him.

Ah, how times have changed. Both men are considered groundbreakers, forefathers to the rich genre we embrace today. Both of them are famous beyond their imaginations, Mr. Lovecraft especially so. (Someone recently pondered what this shy, retiring gentleman would make of the various plush Cthulhu toys that are on the market.)

Still, though Mr. Poe has various museums dedicated to him, especially the houses he occupied in both Philadelphia and Baltimore , Mr. Lovecraft's worldly recognition outside of the fans of the Dark Fantastic have remained modest. Indeed, an appropriate headstone, commemorating his birth and death, was not erected until 1977, when some fans raised money for the monument. The stone, tastefully stark and spare, lists as his epitaph “I Am Providence”, a reference to his beloved city in Rhode Island where he made his home.

Other than this, and a plaque dedicated on the centennial of his birth on August 20, 1990 that hangs on the grounds of Brown University's John Hay Library, there has been little tribute paid to the man who Stephen King refers to as "…the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale."

So I'm very happy to help take part in a new venture to honor this man and his influence on the Dark Fantastic. The H.P. Lovecraft Bronze Bust Project will erect a life size tribute to the iconic author in his hometown of Providence , Rhode Island in August 2013, in time for the celebration of his birthday. (It will also coincide with one of the largest and most exciting Lovecraft events planned, Necronomicon Providence , which I'll talk about more in the coming months. For those who can't wait, click on the Old One below…



From their own release: “Spearheaded by sculptor Bryan Moore, The H.P. Lovecraft Bronze Bust Project is dedicated to the preservation and celebration of the famous author's literary legacy. Lovecraft's cosmic imagination has influenced every region of pop culture including video games, comic books, music and film. H.P. Lovecraft Bronze Bust Project has finally secured a location for a life size bronze tribute to Lovecraft at the Athenaeum Library (founded in 1753) and will launch a public crowd funding campaign on May 1st to raise the funds needed to place the bust there. LIKE our page and stay informed on how you can help get the Dark Prince of Providence get the bronze monument he so rightfully deserves.”

As listed above, the Kickstarter campaign to raise funds begins on May 1, but many organizations, and individuals have come forth to offer incentives and special merchandize to help with the costs of the project. Artist Mike Mignola, whose “Hellboy” is heavily inspired by Mr. Lovecraft's work, has donated original cover art for the Kickstarter project; Arkham Studios is selling small copies of the bust at their online store, and Shout! Factory has donated some Lovecraft-inspired autographed BluRays.

Many genre stalwarts, including Tony Timpone (editor of “Fangoria” magazine), Jovanka Vuckovic (filmmaker and former editor of “Rue Morgue” magazine), Derrick Hussey (of Hippocampus Press), ST Joshi (Lovercaft historian and biographer), Dark Horse Comics, Dark Delicacies bookstore and Stuart Gordon (filmmaker of the Lovecraft adaptations RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND and DAGON), as well as the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society. And myself, of course! (And I am hoping against hope that I'll be able to attend Necronomicon Providence and the unveiling!)

I urge everyone who considers themselves fans of the Master to learn more about and become involved in this truly unique labor of love. You can find out the latest information on the projects Facebook Page by clicking on the image below. (Don't forget to LIKE the Page to stay on top of everything!)

I believe this is one of those rare opportunities that everyone can support, no matter what their interests or opinions. We can do little to overstate how great a debt we owe to Howard Phillips Lovecraft, but this small gesture goes a long way towards trying. I wish everyone involved the greatest success, and a huge thank-you for your efforts!


 

 

While haunting a local bookseller in Old Town , I stumbled across a treasure. I had heard good things about it when it first appeared in a review in the late, lamented “Twilight Zone Magazine”, and was pleased to find that the volume on the shelf was a revised, updated edition.

The book is called “Horror: 100 Best Books”; it was edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. I'm not familiar with the work of Mr. Jones, but Mr. Newman is the author of the author of the “Anno Dracula” series, as well as several excellent non-fiction books in the genre, including a favorite “Nightmare Movies”.

The book is, as the title suggests, a listing of the 100 best books in Horror. But it is far more than that; in addition to listing and synopsizing the volumes, each nominated book has a short essay written by one of the great names in the field, explaining why the selection is included and extolling its virtues.

From their introduction, the editors invited, “…one hundred of the world's top horror, science fiction and fantasy authors and critics to contribute a brief essay on his or her favorite horror book.” I would have thought that this would have created a great deal of duplication; after all, who doesn't include “Dracula” or “The Haunting Of Hill House” among their favorite works of Horror fiction?

Well, no matter how is what decided, the breath of selections here, and the essays examining them, are fascinating. There is, naturally enough, a great deal of duplication among authors and essayists; thus Stephen King puts forth his admiration for Robert Marasco's “Burnt Offerings” while both Peter Straub and Al Sarrantonio praise Mr. King's “The Shining” and “'Salem's Lot”, respectively. Harlan Ellison goes forth on the collection “Out Of Space And Time” by Clark Ashton Smith, and Craig Spector returns the compliment on Mr. Ellison's collection “Deathbird Stories”. It's interesting to note that several selections are collections of short stories, such as Donald A. Wollheim's appreciation of H. P. Lovecraft's “The Outsider And Others”, Ramsey Campbell's nod towards Karl Edward Wagner's “In A Lonely Place”, and David G. Hartwell's admiration for “And The Darkness Falls”, edited by the great Boris Karloff.

The book doesn't hold simply to prose fiction in its criteria; all written fiction is welcome, so we can include Shakespeare's “Macbeth”, Marlow's “Dr. Faustus”, and Nigel Kneale's “Quatermass And The Pit” along with the other selections. (Essays by John Blackburn, Clive Barker and Stephen Laws, respectively.) And the books selected need not be considered part of the Horror genre or canon; Steve Rasnic Tem offers Franz Kafka's “The Trial”, Dennis Etchison chooses Dalton Trumbo's classic “Johnny Got His Gun”, Joe Haldeman presents William Golding's “Lord Of The Flies”, and Douglas E. Winter selects Joseph Conrad's “Heart Of Darkness”.

Also most impressive are the essays chosen from noted masters in the field, voicing their admiration for other notable books. These include Edgar Allen Poe's praise of Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Twice Told Tales”, H. P. Lovecraft's honoring Robert W. Chambers' “The King In Yellow”, and Robert E. Howard's thoughts on James Branch Cabell's “Something About Eve”.

The list goes on, with most of the classic represented and discussed: “The Exorcist” by Blatty (essay by F. Paul Wilson), “The October Country” by Bradbury (essay by Joe Lansdale), “The Haunting Of Hill House” by Jackson (essay by Lisa Tuttle), “Falling Angel” by Hjortsberg (essay by William F. Nolan), “Ghost Story” by Straub (essay by Peter Nicholls), “The House On The Borderland” by Hodgson (essay by Terry Pratchet), “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson, with an essay by his son, author Richard Christian Matheson (a very nice touch!) and, of course, “Dracula” and “Frankenstein”, essays by Colin Wilson and Jane Yolen, respectively.

Not all classic or modern classic books are listed, of course, since these were chosen as each author's favorite. Notably missing are “Rosemary's Baby”, “Interview With A Vampire”, “At The Mountains Of Madness”, “Hell House”, “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, “The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym”, “In A Glass Darkly”, “A Christmas Carol”, “The Picture Of Dorian Gray”, “Kwaidan”, “The Phantom Of The Opera”, The “Gormenghast” Trilogy, “1984”, and others; all of which I believe can be honestly argued as classics equal to the ones selected. Fortunately the editors foresaw this, and included an index of hundreds of books of recommended reading, indexed year by year (beginning in 458 BC!!) that they consider important classics; all the books listed above are included, as well as “A Clockwork Orange”, “Gravity's Rainbow”, “First Blood”, “The Other”, “The Midwich Cuckoos”, “Fancies And Goodnights”, “The Deadly Percheron”, “The Hose Next Door”, “Kiss Of The Spider Woman”, “Our Lady Of Darkness”, “Harvest Home” and so many others as the list goes on and on.

In short: if you're a newcomer to the genre, this book is invaluable as a guide to what Horror offers best and brightest; if you're a seasoned member, this book offers a touchplate of the truly high points and groundbreaking efforts of those toiling in the field, and can provide hours of pleasure as you investigate books and stories you've heard about and always intended to read but didn't, or fresh experiences that have escaped you attention before. Anyone serious about Horror and the Dark Fantastic should make room on their bookshelves for this volume; it's indispensable.

Now, for the big question: if I had been asked to select one of the hundred best books of Horror, what would I have chosen? Would I have gone with a classic so important to the genre, such as “Dracula”? (Still a great favorite.) Maybe an alternate to one of the author's selections, such as “We've Always Lived In The Castle” by Shirley Jackson, or “Conjure Wife” by Fritz Leiber? Perhaps gone with a overlooked book by a name member, such as Mr. King's “Carrie” or “Pet Semetary”, “Demon Seed” by Dean Koontz, or “The Space Vampires” by Colin Wilson? I could chose a book by an author not normally associated with Horror, such as “Bad Fall” by Charles Crawford, or “Crawlspace” by Herbert Lieberman, as others have done. Or I could select a book that I consider a genuinely neglected masterpiece, such as “The Night of The Hunter” by Davis Grubb, “The Kolchack Tapes”, aka “The Night Stalker” by Jeff Rice (the original novel that introduced intrepid investigative reporter Carl Kolchack) or Rod Serling's only collection of prose fiction, “The Season To Be Wary”.

No. If I were to chose a book that I think ranks as one of the greatest in the field, I believe I'd chose one by an author who has impeccable credentials, who has written masterfully for both page and screen but only has one book (well, perhaps two) that can be honestly considered Horror; a book so astonishingly written and deviously plotted that I can say nothing about it for fear of giving away the greatest shocks, but which I still recall with hand-shaking, heart-stopping incredulity, a book that starts out low-keyed and fascinatingly suspenseful, that contains a two-by-four-between-the-eyes wallop halfway through, and spirals down to a genuinely, disturbingly unforgettable conclusion. I've not forgotten one moment of it from the first time I've read it.

I choose “Magic” by William Goldman. Don't see or read anything about the movie; don't read anything about the book. Simply purchase a copy and consider the terrible events that occurred to Corky Withers. Read and enjoy.

For further information about “Horror: 100 Best Books”, please click on the image below.


 

 

This month, a plethora of Poe…

On Saturday, January 19, the 204th birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, I was honored to take part in an international reading of his classic short story “The Pit And The Pendulum”. I found out about the event at the last minute, but was determined to include the Lost Coast in the celebration. Working with friends in the community, I was offered my usual haunting venue of Old Town Coffee & Chocolates, and with as much publicity as we could muster in five, was pleased to entertain a full house of eager listeners.

(And I want to thank of number of people involved in that effort, especially Gail and the employees at Old Town Coffee & Chocolates for their generosity, as well as everyone who attended that evening. I rounded out the night with readings of Poe's poems “The Haunted Palace , “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven”. I had a marvelous time, and plan on being more prepared in 2014!)

As a happy coincidence, my human companion Mark Redfield, a fine actor/producer/writer/director as well as graphic artist (two of his works hang in my TWILIGHT GALLERY) is deeply involved in the Poe House and Museum in Baltimore, MD. They had their own celebration on Mr. Poe's birthday, which featured readings of his work, a one-man show by performer Tony Tsendeas about his life, music, costumes, masques and a toast to the greatness that is the Master of Macabre Fiction.

Had I not been performing at my own event, and if I could be anywhere for that day, I would have been in Baltimore . And for those living in the Northeast and interested in further revelries, the next event is The 2013 Amontillado Wine Tasting Among The Bones! event on March 16 at Westminster Hall in Baltimore.

Mr. Redfield's association with Mr. Poe doesn't end with the Poe House and Museum. The multi-talented individual has also starred and directed the independent feature THE DEATH OF POE, an examination on the final days of his life and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his passing. The movie has been critically acclaimed, and I commend it to your attention. (And if you'll permit me a small digression, I also highly recommend Mr. Redfield's adaptation of DR. JEKYL & MR. HYDE, in my opinion the very best film made from Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale. You will find both available on Netflix.) He has always sited Mr. Poe's work as an inspiration, and exhibited a strong identification with the themes and vision inherent in the work of the author.

And now there is “Poe Forevermore – Tales Of Mystery & Imagination”, a new magazine dedicated not only to the work of Edgar Allan Poe, but to the best of the macabre sensibilities in art, fiction and culture. Edited and published by Mr. Redfield through Damfino Media LLC, the magazine is presented through the auspices of The Raven Society of Baltimore, Inc., a group dedicated a celebration of Poe's past, his life and work, the history of the Poe House in Baltimore under the care of The Poe Society (from 1949 to 1979) and under the City of Baltimore and the CHAP (1979 to 2012), and the future of Baltimore's literary, architectural jewel. The society was created by Mr. Redfield and Jeff Jerome, Curator Emeritus of The Poe House and Museum in Baltimore.

The magazine is a handsome periodical, and the premiere issue features fiction by Stephen Volk (creator of the marvelous British series AFTERLIFE and the infamous GHOSTWATCH broadcast), David Gerrold (of STAR TREK 's “The Trouble With Tribbles” fame) and (writer and story editor for the series THE WIRE), as well as interviews with Stephen Rebello, author of “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of PSYCHO”, on which the new film HITCHCOCK is based, and an in-depth look at Poe's “Berenice”.

The magazine will be published quarterly, but subscribers will receive a special fifth issue only available to them, as well as an E-newsletter “The Poe Insider”, and a free gift with each issue. Subscriptions are $50.00 in the US , with proceeds going to the upkeep of the Poe House and Museum. For such a fine new magazine it seems a bargain, and a very way to help a very worthy cause while rewarding yourself for your efforts!

You can both subscribe and learn more about the magazine, the House and Museum, and all future Poe-related events by logging onto their sister website poeforevermore.com, co-created under the auspices of Raven Society member Jennifer Rouse, webmaster and graphic artist. I hope you'll peruse this marvelous site at your leisure, and I will be featuring it on my LINKS Page for your convenience. (You can also click on the image of the magazine below to access the website.)

This seems to me both a wonderful tribute to the author, as well as an exciting new venue for authors and illustrators of the weird and wonderful. I hope you will support the publication, and I wish it many years of success!

 

 

I will step to the back of the bus for no one in my admiration for the late Rod Serling.

He is, of course, best known (and rightly so) for his talents at script writing, not only for his work on THE TWILIGHT ZONE but for his milestone efforts in televisions Golden Age: “Requiem For A Heavyweight”, “Patterns”, “This Town Has Turned To Dust”, and “The Rack”, among others. His film work is equally well-respected, adapting SEVEN DAYS IN MAY and the original PLANET OF THE APES (which is pure TWILIGHT ZONE in theme and structure, right down to the shocking final image).

What many are unaware is that Mr. Serling also practiced his art in prose form. He published three collections of short stories adapted from his TWILIGHT ZONE scripts, and two collections of adapted NIGHT GALLERY tales. In many cases, particularly with the NIGHT GALLERY volumes, the short stories carry a richness and power that was missing in the televised effort. In addition, the NIGHT GALLERY books contain two stories that were never broadcast or were shown in such a different version as to be an original work.

(For the record, these are “Does The Name Grimsby Mean Anything To You?” from “Night Gallery”, and “Suggestion” from “Night Gallery 2”, a superior variation on the televised episode “Finnegan's Flight”.)

But the only collection of completely original prose fiction from Mr. Serling was his collection of three novelettes “The Season To Be Wary”, published in 1967 after TWILIGHT ZONE had left the air, and before NIGHT GALLERY was produced. I own a hardback copy; it sits proudly on my bookshelf, and the stories are magnificent.

(If there is any sadness about Mr. Serling's long career, it's that he didn't pursue the prose form more thoroughly in his later career. He always believed his short stories came up short in comparison to his script work. Like many a creative individual before and since, Mr. Seling was much too hard on himself in regards to his own talents.)

Two of the novelettes can also be considered part of his television labors; they were adapated for the pilot film for the NIGHT GALLERY series. They are “Eyes”, the tale of a cold-hearted, rich blind woman who purchases a poor man's eyes so that her vision can be restored in an experimental operation, with tragic results for all concerned, and “Escape Route”, about a Nazi war criminal in South America, hunted by the authorities, who devises a unique method of eluding his pursuers only to encounter cosmic justice of the most horrifying.

Both tales were well adapted and are equally memorable. ( “Eyes” was the first directing assignment of a 22-year-old novice named Steven Spielberg!) I prefer Escape Route myself; the theme of ultimate evil and personal guilt and retribution has always been a strong one for Mr. Serling, and he weaves a fascinating character study of a man struggling to come to terms with his past and avoid the responsibilities for his sins. The teleplay is helped by the fine direction of Boris Sagel, and superb performances by Richard Kiley as the Nazi, Norma Crane as his prostitute neighbor, and Sam Jaffe as a concentration camp survivor.

Yet the prose efforts are beautifully written, rich with character and observation. Stoker Award-winning author Gary A. Braunbeck considers Escape Route , “Arguably Serling's finest achievement as a short fiction writer.” and calls it “…feverish, crackling, morally vindictive…”and “…a tighter, more immensely focused and blisteringly angry piece of work.”

Indeed, “blisteringly angry” certainly describes much of “A Season To Be Wary”. Freed of the constraints of television's time and budget limits and network censorship, he delves into places that were far too dark to explore during the 1960s and ‘70s. Nowhere is this more apparent than the final novelette, “Color Scheme”; based on an idea by Sammy Davis Jr., it concerns a racist rabble-rouser in the South during the Civil Rights era, who runs afoul of fate and karma in a manner much too fierce and vicious for the broadcast standards of that time. This is a grim, uncompromising look at what that terrible time truly was like, without the optimism so often present in his TWILIGHT ZONE work. I think this tale may be his most powerful and unforgettable.

If you treasure an extraordinary talent, one whose like we will surely never see again, I cannot recommend “The Season To Be Wary” more highly. One can lament that this is the only original collection of Mr. Serling's brand of the Dark Fantastic and mourn what was not, but one can also be extremely thankful at the gifts we were given.

To learn more or purchase about “The Season To Be Wary” , click on the image below.

 

 

The time is growing short, and you're frantically searching for those extra-special gifts for your friends of exquisite and unusual tastes; tastes that tilt towards the dark, the dreary, the strange and foreboding. Your friends seem more comfortable with the terrors and tremors of the October Season rather than the time of peace on Earth and good will towards men. You want to get them something reflective of the Yuletide, but with a macabre sensibility.

Well, allow me to assist you! What else are friends for?

Christmas is, after all, the traditional time of ghostly tales, and I'm happy to point you in the direction of some very appropriate offerings for a Joyeux Noël! Step right up to our Gift Exchange…

Of course, not every ghost story to be told at Christmas must concern the Christmas Season itself, but Kathryn Cramer and David G. Hartwell, editors of the anthology “Christmas Ghosts”, have made it the criteria for selection. You'll find tales both humorous and horrific from some of the genre's undisputed masters.

You'll find classics such as John Kendrick Bangs "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall," Charles Dickens' "The Story of The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton," and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Christmas Banquet," as well as newer tales such as Elizabeth Walter's "Christmas Night," and Ramsey Campbell's "Calling Card,” a genuine blood-freezer. This is a fine addition to your bookshelf of holiday Dark Fantastic, right next to your volume of “A Christmas Carol.” What? You don't own a copy of that? High time you did, then…

(Just a note: there is another anthology that carries the same title as this; I can't vouch for the quality or stories in that collection. Make certain you ask for the book by Ms. Cramer and Mr. Hartwell, published by Arbor House Publishing. You can order it by clicking on the image below.)


I've always been an admirer of the work of sculptor Jim Store; I have several of his pieces in my collection, including his fine interpretation of The Headless Horseman from his Halloween series. So I'm delighted that he's turned his attention to the greatest Christmas ghost story of all times with four figures from “A Christmas Carol.”

Here you'll find the linked Ghost of Marley, Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit, the Ghost of Christmas Present with Want and Ignorance beneath his cloak (one of my favorite scenes from the book) and, most remarkably, a two-sided figure of Ebenezer Scrooge, one side depicting him before the extraordinary events of that Christmas Eve, and the other depicting him afterwards.

If I have any criticisms, I'd say that Want and Ignorance could be more macabre in appearance, and that Mr. Store would consider adding Christmas Past and Yet-To-Come soon to his collection. But what he's done is remarkable, and a worthy addition to any mantle Christmas display. You can learn more about these pieces and see the rest of Mr. Shore's collections (including his wonderful Halloween work) by clicking on Marley's Ghost.


Finally, for those who prefer their literature unexpurgated: as I mentioned on my MENU Page, the great English ghost story author M. R. James greatly valued the tradition of sharing his ghostly tales on Christmas Eve, and many of his most famous works were written to be read to his friends gathered to celebrate at his annual dinner.

The BBC honored these works by producing films of his tales and broadcasting them late on Christmas Eve, but if you'd rather hear the actual stories of Mr. James, read by one of the finest actors of his generation, you can't possibly go wrong with “Ghost Stories: Volume One: Five Supernatural Tales Read by Derek Jacobi.” These were original produced as part of a radio series of James's tales, with actor Jacobi portraying James. (Much as the BBC television series had Christopher Lee portraying James and reading the stories aloud.)

The tales are backed with music to add to the mood, much as my own modest efforts. The tales have been criticized for being shortened and revised for the readings, making them seem rushed, but as one who has attempted to hold an audience with the printed word, brevity is not to be ignored. Besides, the opportunity to hear Mr. Jacobi narrate some of the eeriest tales committed to paper – “The Ash Tree,” “A View From A Hill,” “Rats,” “A School Story, ” and “The Story of a Disappearance and Appearance” – is too tempting to resist.

But if you do prefer the printed word, you can't possible go wrong with “Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories” from Oxford University Press, a collection of Mr. James's best-known tales, including the utterly horrifying “Oh Whistle, and I'll Come To You, My Lad” and the title story, which inspired the marvelous film CURSE OF THE DEMON . There are enough tales here to create macabre merriment for many Christmases to come! (And when you're done reading, you might want to watch the movie; it's truly one of the best Dark Fantasies ever filmed.)

To learn more about the Derek Jacobi collection, click on the image below; for the Oxford anthology, click on the image below that.



I hope these suggests help fill the stockings of your most discerning aficionados of the weird and uncanny, and I wish you a Happy and Horrific Holiday Season!

 

 

During the October Season, I happened to be strolling past one of my favorite bookstores, Northtown books, in Arcata, the town right next to my regular haunt of Eureka . Their picture window was filled with tomes pertaining to the Halloween Season, from non-fiction regarding actual hauntings and paranormal phenomenon to the latest issue of “Rue Morgue” magazine to new additions of genre classics such as “The Haunting Of Hill House”, “Coraline”…and “The Other”, by Thomas Tryon. I stared at the handsome new cover, and was overcome with a rush of nostalgia.

It's a sad fact that, among fans of the Dark Fantastic, “The Other” is criminally unknown and underappreciated, because the novel is an extraordinary piece of work. I enjoyed it immensely when I first encountered it years ago, and thought then, as I do now, that it stands as a milestone of Horror. (And I'm not alone; no less an authority than Stephen King, in his textbook “Danse Macabre”, included “The Other” on a list of the best Horror novels of the past fifty years, and labeled it an important work.) The novel was filmed in 1972, and the movie is quite faithful and effective, but it lacks the casual dark poetry of Mr. Tryon's prose, and therefore comes up short.

The circumstances behind the writing of the novel are remarkable in themselves. The dark and handsome Mr. Tryon had been an actor, quite a good one, and had starred in, among other films, THE LONGEST DAY, IN HARM'S WAY, and WINCESTER 73, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actor for his work in the title role of THE CARDINAL. His genre credits include the starring roles in I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, Walt Disney's MOON PILOT, and a live television adaptation of Poe's FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER.

His experiences on THE CARDINAL soured his love of acting. One night in 1968 he saw the film version of Ira Levin's ROSEMARY'S BABY. Fascinated by the story, he decided that he also possessed the skills to write a Horror novel. The difference between Mr. Tryon and the multitude who constantly make that pronouncement is that one, he did possess the skills and two, he sat down and did it. The result was “The Other”, a powerful piece of familial evil that overshadows a small Connecticut farming community in the summer of 1935.

Perhaps it's because I was involved in the Ray Bradbury reading for October than I felt the frission of kinship for “The Other”. I don't think it an impertinent comparison; “The Other” is very Bradburyesque in its depiction of small town existence and the nostalgia for a time past (much like “Dandelion Wine”). The language used by Mr. Tryon is dark and evocative, creating an unseen aura of menace that grows steadily through the narrative, like much of Mr. Bradbury's best Horror. There is a scene in “The Other” concerning a small town carnival midway and sideshow that would be quite comfortable beside Mr. Bradbury's depictions in “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (although Mr. Tryon's version is rife with implicit and explicit sexual overtones). There is also the use of children as both vessels of innocence and evil, and an uncompromising pull towards absolute, hideous terror towards the end of the novel that reflect Mr. Bradbury at his most savage, as in “The October Game” and “The Small Assassin”.

You'll note I've said nothing about the plot; nor will I. The puzzle box is one that must be unraveled by the reader, discovering it's shocks and surprises on his or her own, reveling in the lush language. I will whisper that it concerns a family with secrets, and two twin boys: Niles , a good son, and Holland , a child of darker temperament. I'll also note that the growing sense of dread is fully realized in a scene shocking in its unexpectancy; Mr. Tryon is a master manipulator, and his sure understatement cuts deeper than any bludgeoning histrionics.

The confidence in Mr. Tryon's writing is all the more remarkable at this being a first novel. It wasn't his last success, nor was it his only foray into the Dark Fantastic. He also penned the perhaps better known “Harvest Home”, the novella “Fedora”, the suspense thriller “The Night Of The Moonbow” and the fantasy “Night Magic”. But “The Other” was his first, and a remarkable achievement. If you're unfamiliar with the story, read it; it will never be forgotten. If you've read and loved the novel, as I have, it may be time to reacquaint yourself with the menace within, during this time of autumn change to winter when the chill felt may not be from the seasons alone.


To order "The Other", please click on the image above.

 

 

Last month I directed your attention to the website RavensBlight, a virtual, spooky town reminiscent of Arkham or Innsmouth, where the strange and macabre walk the shadowy streets, a place where Edward Gorey would be teaching a Pen & Ink class in the Art Studio and Mr. Poe would be holding forth in the neighborhood tavern.

Of course RavensBlight only exists in cyberspace, I'm sorry to say; you won't find the town on any map in the free world. On the other hand, you won't find ‘ Salem 's Lot , Oxrun Station or Willowby, either… I hope you enjoyed browsing the site, and will continue to return to find more dark delights.

RavensBlight is the creation of a fine artist named Ray O'Bannon (no relation, from what I'm aware, to the other O'Bannon of the Dark Fantastic, Dan, creator of ALIEN, DARK STAR, DEAD AND BURIED [a fine Halloween film] and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD.) According to his biography at RavensBlight, Mr. O'Bannon began the site to display some of his artwork; his imagination apparently got the better of him, and soon the town had risen from piece by piece from the dark ground.

It's no surprise to me that RavensBlight was birthed from Mr. O'Bannon's creativity; those who've perused the site from last month will note that he apparently has creativity to burn! In addition to his evocative images, he is also a fine author, musician and filmmaker, and RavensBlight reflects all of these interests. I look forward to returning now and again to the town and seeing how it continues to grow (assuming that the state of deathly decay can be called growing…)

But what first drew me to RavensBlight, and indeed what has become the most popular attraction to tourists visiting this otherworldly locale is the Toy Shop. Mr. O'Bannon has created interactive art that should inspire your decorative creativity this October Season. He has a long (and constantly increasing!) list of quality paper toys to brighten up any festive Halloween atmosphere and thrill both young and old alike. Best of all, each of his creations is absolutely free to all visitors! (Whoever said nothing's is for nothing in this world never stumbled upon RavensBlight or its generous creator.)

Look at the design below for The Hearse Carriage. Don't tell me you wouldn't love to have this as the centerpiece of your Halloween Party! And there's so many designs to choose from, I'm certain that, just as I did, you'll be uttering cries of pure delight as you browse each one, marveling at the detail and reverting for a time to those childhood moments when wonder could be held in your hands with a simple plaything. (And allowing the ability to recapture those moments is a precious gift in itself, and well worthy of a heartfelt “thank you!” to Mr. O'Bannon.)


Mr. O'Bannon's designs and assembly instructions seem quite clear to both first-time and experienced craftspersons. I offer these simple caveats: 1) follow Mr. O'Bannon's instructions completely for the best effect. 2) as per his suggestion, you might want to transfer the designs onto a heavier card-stock to ensure sturdier toys. 3) you might want to look over his Toy Building Tips at the top of the Toy Page; they are very helpful. 4) As he suggests, take your time. No need to rush; the Season is still many weeks away!

And most importantly 5) don't be discouraged! If the instructions seem confusing, or if the toy isn't turning out the way you intend, start over! Experiment! But enjoy yourselves! There's no point in doing something that will only frustrate. Remember there's always another day, and the toys are paper , and paper, after all, does grow on trees!

To access the Toy Shop at RavensBlight, click on the image of The Ghost House below.

I hope these projects bring you all great joy and accomplishment. Happy Halloween, to all my crafty human companions, and to the ghouls and ghosts of RavensBlight!

 

 

It wasn't intentional, simply a case of my being busy, but somehow I missed seeing the new Pixar film BRAVE when it was initially released to theaters. Happily, I assume for the Labor Day weekend, it's been reissued, and I was able to watch it on the big screen. This pleased me greatly, as I think all movies should be seen on as big a screen as possible, especially when they're as visually impressive as Pixar's movies.

I've yet to see a bad movie from this company; I know the odds are favoring that they'll make at least one in their honorable career, but BRAVE certainly isn't it. (To be fair, I haven't seen either of the CARS films.) This film continues their tradition of spectacular imagery, very human characterizations, and a sense of storytelling that will bring smiles to your faces at the most unexpected times. I loved this film, for any numbers of reasons, but for several in particular:

One, it features a female protagonist that is strong and cunning; flawed (as we all are) but good of heart and noble of spirit, who faces her problems squarely, fights heroically, and does so without the aid of any male counterparts, up to and including the end of the film, where she doesn't go off with her handsome prince, but stays true to her own individuality. Having many young girls as my fans, I find this a very worthy message, and wish I could have taken them all to see the movie with me.

Second, the movie revolves around a mother-daughter relationship, something lacking in many fables where the wicked stepmother still reigns supreme. It strikes me as a very real relationship in the film; oftimes antagonistic, but fierce, loyal and loving, as most are. The two are much more alike than they initially imagine; only their stubborn pride prevents them from seeing this.

Third, the movie is literally filled with magic, not simply the witch's spells, but the landscape that beautifully captures the Celtic culture, complete with sacred stone circles, will-o'-the-wisps, and natural wonders and horrors. (The central monster, a huge, ferocious bear, is as terrible and terrifying as any Universal creation.) I have a deep affinity with all things Celtic, including the wonderful music, and the film overflows with it. The score is moving and deeply heartfelt, and I commend Pixar for acknowledging the special Celtic talents of the musicians in their closing credits.

I'll say no more about the story, save that it involves a headstrong young princess who doesn't want to be married off to another clan, despite her mother the Queen's intentions, and the conflicts that arise because of this. All the better that you discover the joys and turns the tale takes yourself. It is a modern interpretation of a traditional fable, exceptionally well done. It has been criticized as being predictable, but fables follow an iconic structure, and as any audience knows, the best tales depend on the telling to make their mark. This is a very well told tale by expert storytellers, and I commend it to you.

(For some additional thoughts on Pixars storytelling abilities, please see this month's THOUGHTS & REVERIES Page.)

I would be remiss in not singing the praises of LA LUNA, the short that accompanies the film; it's also charming and utterly magical, and made me smile in wonder. (Why don't more films show shorts? It's a bit of extra entertainment, and Pixar's are magnificent.) And I entreat you to stay to the very end of the credits, not only to enjoy the music but for a final delightful scene that Pixar is famous for producing.

But if Celtic magic doesn't hold you under the sway of its enchantment as it does me, perhaps you may find PARANORMAN more to your liking. Certainly it's a wonderful way to get into the Halloween spirit a bit early this year.

I confess when I first saw the ads for the movie, I wasn't enthused about it. Then several critics that I admire began to sing its praises, and I discovered that it was produced by the same individuals that did the classic CORALINE. That convinced me to see it, and although PARANORMAN doesn't measure up to CORALINE (the difference, as one critic pointed out, is Neil Gaiman, probably one of the single finest practitioners of the Dark Fantastic today) it's still a fantastically dark, stunningly visual entertainment.

The movie is filmed with stop-motion animation, and although I do enjoy the computer-animated films, there is something special about well-done stop-motion; it achieves a reality that other animation can't, simply because the figures and background are real. (There was one moment in PARANORMAN of a sunset where, for a brief instant, you can actually see the cloth texture of the sky.)

Norman is a lonely, solitary boy with an unusual gift: he can see and talk to ghosts, most particularly his recently departed, beloved grandmother. This seems more of a curse than a gift to Norman, who is misunderstood by his family, teased and ridiculed by his fellow classmates, and much discussed by the neighbors and residents of the small town of Blithe Hollow , leaving him an outcast. Worst of all, Blithe Hollow seems to be filled with restless spirits, having killed a witch 300 years ago (the town attempts to capitalize off of her at every opportunity; witch references abound on Main Street . Imagine Salem as spun by Disney…)

Even worse is the possibility that the undead may not remain spirits for long; upon her death sentence the witch cast a spell on the town, promising that the dead would literally walk again on the anniversary of her trial. And soon, Norman and his companions (including his older sister and his singular bully nemesis) must join together against the seven zombies that are marching through town…

As you can see from the above synopsis, PARANORMAN is quite dark and sardonic, probably too dark for very young children. (But a young companion of mine wasn't the least bit nervous about the terrors present in CORALINE, which is easily as dark as this movie, so what do I know?) I can also tell you that I've spoiled nothing from my description; the movie has a very satisfying number of twists and turns it takes before the pyrotechnical conclusion. Jokes abound across the screen that many will probably miss (did you catch the name of the town?) and the mad Marx Brothers feel that overtakes the middle section will keep the most impatient viewers glued to their seats.

The film isn't perfect, of course; I found some of the broad humor a bit too broad, and for me a little goes a long way. But I was greatly caught up in the dire straits suffered by Norman, his best friend Neil, his sister Courtney, Mitch, Neil's older brother, Alvin, Norman 's bully, and Norman 's family. Norman is as courageous and clever as Merida , BRAVE 's heroine, albeit a bit more reluctantly. And the movie is jaw-droppingly amazing to watch, surely one of the most visually visceral experiences I've enjoyed in some time. Take your bravest young Halloween fans, and the older ones as well, and watch Norman save his town from a terrible fate.

And, as with BRAVE, stay through the final credits, not only for some delightful traditional animation set to one of the catchiest tunes I've heard in a while ( “Little Ghost” by The White Stripes, which if it isn't already should be on its way to classic Halloween song status) and, at the very end, an astonishing time-lapse look at the actual creation of Norman, from armature through latex though costume fitting (seriously!) to the final creation of his expressive features! Grab your popcorn, and have a fine time!

 

 

School will be starting in another few weeks, and I've been thinking of an extraordinary book for young people that, not surprisingly, should hold some fascination for adults as well, particularly those with long memories.

In 1974, Robert Cormier wrote a novel that became an instant classic of Young Adult literature, and became one of the most widely challenged and banned books in contemporary reading. The book is "The Chocolate War," and Stephen King regards the novel as a classic that doesn't sentimentalize childhood. I am in complete agreement there, and that is one reason why the book has disturbed many adults.

There is rough language true, but nothing more than the natural speech patterns of young men and women; there are sexual thoughts and actions, but no more than have occurred since the beginning of time and are included not as exploitative elements but, as the author states, to provide a legitimacy to the story, and a respect for the honest portrayal of young lives. (Indeed, Mr. Cormier received many a missive from young adults admiring the book and thanking him for his honesty.)

What is most disturbing about the book is the narrative, a low-key examination if institutionalized evil and corruption. The tale is simplicity; a private school plans a chocolate sale to raise funds. All students are expected to join in and put forth an honest effort, but one young man decides not to sell any chocolates. He is groping towards adulthood, and initially is unsure why he objects, but he does so with increasing conviction. And his convictions bring down the wrath of the school; the administration, his fellow classmates, and a not-so-secret society of popular boys known as the Vigils. All bring their forces of conformity and soul-crushing peer pressure to bear on the young man, the threats becoming more and more insidious. The ending is most disturbing in its bleakness; there are no heroes, no last minute retribution against the systems of society not too different from the larger adult world. It is this, probably more than the language and sexual situations that so disturb the adult community. Mr. Cormier is honest to the very end, and his young readers understand.

In 1988 a film adaptation was made. Written and directed by Keith Gordon, himself a former youthful actor (CHRISTINE, BACK TO SCHOOL, and DRESSED TO KILL). Made on a very low budget, the lack of frills adds to the heightened tension and grim underpinnings of Mr. Cormier's tale. It features Ilan Mitchell-Smith as Jerry, the young man standing up for principles he doesn't completely understand, John Glover as Brother Leon, the oppressive headmaster of the school, Wallace Langham as Archie, the young Machiavellian mastermind behind the Vigils, and Adam Baldwin, Doug Hutchison and Brent David Fraser as his cohorts.

Mr. Gordon does well with his tale, directed in a spare, subdued manner. (He later went on to make the wonderful version of Kurt Vonnegut's MOTHER NIGHT and the miniseries WILD PALMS; currently he can be seen directing episodes of DEXTER.) He filmed the tale at an abandoned monastery in Washington state, and the sense of landscape is oppressive and stark. The young performers are very well cast, and perform their allegorical roles perfectly. Best of all, the soundtrack is filled with dark, haunting musical interludes from artists such as Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and Yaz.

THE CHOCOLATE WAR isn't Horror, but there are elements of the horrific. It isn't Dark Fantasy, but there is a surreal edge to the proceedings that David Lynch would find intriguing. I suppose you could call it a psychological thriller, but it is much more. It is allegory, a search at truths too difficult to handle straight on, so they must be presented through a reflected, distorted glass. Looking into the mirror that is THE CHOCOLATE WAR, you will see things very clearly, and your heart will break for doing so.

To learn about and purchase the book, click on the left image. To learn about the film, click on the right image. 

 

 

Once again I'm taking a chance and recommending something I haven't seen in person; however the pedigree involved looks fascinating.

I wish there were more Horror and Dark Fantasy on the legitimate stage. I'm not certain why everyone seems to feel only books and the motion picture screen (and television screen by relation) is the most effective way to convey terror. There have been numerous attempt s to portray Horror in live theater; much of it quite successful. in addition to the classic adaptations of "Dracula" (which mad Mr. Lugosi a star), "Frankenstein," "The Turn Of The Screw" and others, there have been modern plays that have proven very effective in chilling the blood and rising the hair of the collective audience; these would include the works of Ira Levin ("Deathtrap," "Veronica's Room"), Mr. Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," "Wait Until Dark," and the stage adaptation of Mr. King's "Misery".

And let us not forget that the spiritual grandfather of slasher films and torture porn, the Grand-Guignol, enjoyed a run of 65 years! I've enjoyed the sensation of hearing an audience of theater-goers shriek at the top of their lungs, so I know firsthand that Horror works very well in the visceral atmosphere of the live play. So I'm delighted to turn your attention to the professional theater the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles 's Westwood Village , where they are embarking on a limited run production of William Peter Blatty's classic "The Exorcist"!

No doubt the live show will differ from the film; there will be less of an emphasis on graphic shock as much as the psychological terror that plays a large part in Mr. Blatty's novel. Indeed, as one production member assured a local publication, "They won't be throwing up on the audience!"

What makes me think the production will be successful. The cast is quite exceptional; it features Richard Chamberlain as Father Merrin, Brook Shields as Chris MacNeil, Harry Groener (who you'll probably recognize as the Mayor from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) as Burke Dennings, and young Emily Yetter (recently of the film PROJECT X) as Reagan. Not too shabby, eh? And a good sign that the production is taking its status seriously. The director is John Doyle, whose previous staged the revivals of "Company" and "Sweeney Todd." But most impressive to me is the playwright: Mr. Blatty's novel has been adapted by John Pielmeier, who first play was the acclaimed "Agnes Of God," which also featured a horrific spiritual mystery and echoed some of the themes of "The Exorcist."

This seems to me like a very worthwhile endeavor, and I wish all involved in the show great artistic and financial success. Hopefully the show will move to Broadway if it is well-received; perhaps it can be presented in movie theaters by the Rialto Cinema; certainly a DVD of the production should be possible, for those not in the greater Los Angeles area.

You can learn more information by clicking on the image below for the website of the Geffen Playhouse. The production runs from July 3 through August 12.


And speaking of the Rialto Cinema - they are presenting through National Theatre Live an encore presentation of Danny Boyle's critically acclaimed (and rightly so!) production of "Frankenstein," staring Benedict Cumberbatch (TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY  and the BBC's SHERLOCK) and Jonny Lee Miller (TRAINSPOTTING and, ironically, the upcoming American version of SHERLOCK  called ELEMENTARY). I can't say enough about this production; it is stunning and mesmerizing and brilliant, and if you miss it it will be your great loss. yes, it's available on DVD, but it should be seen on the large screen in the theater. You can find out more about the production (and learn where it's playing in your area) by clicking on the image below.

 

 

Of all the tributes to Ray Bradbury now being written in newspapers, magazines and on the Internet, perhaps none is quite as fitting as the one sitting in a place of honor on my bookshelf from 2002.

"BRADBURY: An Illustrated Life - A Journey To Far Metaphor" is, in its simplest sense, a coffee-table book biography. Beautifully bound in hardcover and filled to the brim with gorgeous black-&-white and full-color photographs and artwork, Assembled by Jerry Weist, with an introduction by Mr. Bradbury himself, it purports to highlight the high points of Mr. Bradbury's life through illustration, both of his stories and by photos of theatrical productions and motion pictures inspired by or adapted from his works. In its simplest form, that's exactly what it is, and what it does, and you'll certainly get your money's worth in that respect.

But it is so much more. Ray Bradbury touched every aspect of the revered "Golden Age" of Science Fiction and Fantastic Literature, and the book is a compendium of many of the touchstones of the genre, all focused through the lens of the work of Ray Bradbury.

Here are all the book covers, hardcover and paperback, US and foreign editions, and what a wild menagerie they make. Here are magazine illustrations of his tales by legendary artists such as Virgil Finlay, Charles Addams, Kelly Freas, Hannes Bok and Joseph Mugnaini. (There is a special section dedicated to the work of Mr. Mugnaini; many have called him the definitive artist for Mr. Bradbury's work, and their mutual admiration and friendship is a fascinating footnote to both careers.) Here are adaptations of his tales in EC Comics “Weird Fantasy” and “ The Haunt Of Fear”, illustrated by Wally Wood, Joe Orlando, Al Williamson and Jack Davis.

Here are the film posters, with stills from THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, FAHRENHEIT 451, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES and PICASSO SUMMER. There are pages from Francois Truffaut from the making of FAHRENHEIT 451, and behind the scenes photographs from all the productions (including Mr. Bradbury's favorite, himself with the cast and extras from SOMETHING WICKED.)

Here are photos from his famous stage productions, including the ground-breaking "The Martian Chronicles," first produced at the Colony Theatre in 1977, along with scenes from his one-act works such as "The Foghorn, "Kaleidoscope" and "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.".

And there are the photos of Mr. Bradbury and his friends; Forrest J Ackerman, Ray Harryhausen, Doc E. E. Smith, Edmond Hamilton and Robert Heinlein. All of it dedicated to tracing the life of Mr. Bradbury through the visual media.

You will pour over these pages for hours, and return to the book again and again. And you will no doubt find a place of honor for it in your own library. With his passing in the past few days, there will no doubt be other tributes coming, remembrances and observations on his life, his work, and his talents. I don't know that any will be better than this beautifully. I'm very glad he lived to see its publication, and hope you will treasure it as I.

To purchase the book, please click on the image below.


 

 

As I've mentioned before, I rarely recommend something that I haven't personally seen or read. But there are exceptions, and every so often I stumble across something that I find so fascinating that I can't help but point it out to others in the hope that they might enjoy it.

Perhaps one of the most iconic (if not the most iconic) novels in Horror literature is Mary Shelly's “Frankenstein”. This book has been adapted – for plays, for films, for comics, et al – more than any other. It is one of those books that everyone is aware of, everyone knows the basic story, and most people have never read. It's influence can be seen in works as diverse as Tim Burton's upcoming FRANKENWEENIE to Frankenberry breakfast cereal to the television series FRINGE. Indeed, so far-reaching is this simple tale from a nineteen-year-old author that oftimes a news report is published that is critical of scientific advancement, the name “Frankenstein” is referenced.

So the question posed is: how do you make a story that is so familiar to the public fresh and insightful. And Inkle, a multi-media publisher, and author Dave Morris have come up with a (no pun intended) novel approach: revise “Frankenstein” as an inter-active experience.

Not in the way of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books for young people, which gave you several scenarios to pick from as you read, or in the form of the modern video game. You cannot change the outcome of the novel, you can't have the characters behave in ways that are opposite to Ms. Shelly's intentions. But what you can affect is the pacing and structure of the novel to reflect the many different themes that it tackles, depending on your interests and responses to the prose.

Sound confusing? Not really; this was actually done recently with the acclaimed Danny Boyle stage adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. The play began with the birth of he monster, alone on stage, and followed the Creature as it escaped Frankenstein's laboratory and experienced its adventures in the world. I thought this was brilliant; because the story is so well known and the details of Frankenstein's passion so ingrained in audiences psyches, the play focused immediately on the Creature, which is frankly the main interest of most readers and viewers. Frankenstein himself doesn't take the stage in the play until the second act!

The new adaptation does the same thing; you can follow the experiences of the monster chronologically; you can stay with Frankenstein and his story, you can rearrange the time element to better understand the moral complexities the book proposes. The options seem limited only by the reader's tastes and interests, and presents a fresh perspective on the narrative.

Mr. Morris has also made some changes to the background and location of the tale, and changed the author's voice from third person to present tense. The book has been beautiful designed with medical illustrations and interesting graphics.

This looks to be a true labor of love, and, unlike the retelling of Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” I found so disheartening last December, seems an honest attempt to translate the experience of the novel and make it accessible and thought-provoking to a contemporary audience. As suspicious as I can be of the uses of new technology on the classics, I look forward to exploring the potential of “Frankenstein”, and hope it opens a path of similar exploration for other genre classics. I think you would do well to look into it yourselves, and I hope you find it as intriguing as I.

To learn more about and purchase the book itself, click on the image below. To read a review of the book on Salon, click HERE.

 

 

BBC America often broadcasts limited miniseries in a timeslot called DRAMAVILLE. The idea is to take a variety of shows that would be too short to occupy their own slot and rotate them, much like the NBC MYSTERY MOVIES and the FOUR-IN-ONE concept (that featured the first season of NIGHT GALLERY before it was promoted to its own individual timeslot the following season). Among the programs shown are THE HOUR, an espionage drama concern the backstage machinations of a 60 MINUTES-style news program during the Cold War (which I quite enjoyed), LUTHER, a character study of an obsessive detective battling serial killers and his own demons (which I didn't like, despite a solid performance by Idris Elba), and the best of the three, the dark noirish WHITECHAPEL.

As you've deduced, WHITECHAPEL takes place in the notorious East End section of London where Jack The Ripper stalked his prey. Modern Whitechapel is still as seedy and grim as it was in Victorian times, although some of the squalor has been replaced by an artist and alternate lifestyle community. Into this boiling soup of societal angst and corruption come three police investigators: Ray Miles, the grizzled, hard-nose street cop who flouts the rules and authority, Joseph Chandler, Miles superior, an intellectual detective besieged by his own obsessive compulsive behavior, and Edward Buchan, a Ripperologist and historian who runs the Ripper tours of Whitechapel. What brings these disparate individuals together is a terrifying realization that the latest crime wave to batter the area is a copycat recreation of the Ripper's crimes, down to the names of the victims.

WHITECHAPEL is more crime thriller than Horror, but the atmosphere of dread and despair, and the subject of the Ripper murders, makes it prime material for our genre. Jack The Ripper has a long and distinguished history in the Dark Fantastic, from Robert Bloch's classic "Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper" and Harlan Ellison's equally classic answer "The Prowler In The City On The Edge Of The World", to Nicholas Meyer's TIME AFTER TIME and the Sherlock Holmes pastiches A STUDY IN TERROR and MURDER BY DECREE, as well as Alan Moore's groundbreaking "From Hell" and the Hughes Brothers film adaptation of the same name. The Ripper conjures up images of gaslight and blood; the stink of the slaughterhouse and the rot of society's dregs gathered in one hellific location. Whitechapel isn't just the name of a community; it's a cursed point of reference, and the Ripper hasn't grown less frightening in these modern times. In point of fact, he's become commonplace thanks to his offspring of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and others in the Rogue's Gallery.

WHITECHAPEL's visuals are bleak and grimly beautiful, and the dialogue and pace suggest crushing forces kept at bay by the dogged passion of the detectives. The performances are uniformly excellent, most notably Rupert Penry-Jones as Chandler, with the solid support of Philip Davis as Miles, and the studiously eccentric Steve Pemberton as Buchan. Buchan in particular is a fascinating individual, delving deeply into the history of Whitechapel crimes and charting the parallels of modern violence.

In many ways the show reminds me of MILLENIUM, the marvelous (at least the first and third season) series by Chris Carter, creator of THE X FILES, and starring Lance Henriksen. Although it touched upon supernatural occurrences as the series progressed, the show was primarily concerned with man's inhumanity to man, and those that stand on the borders between day and night, putting their souls and sanity on the line to push back the heart of darkness. The inspectors of WHITECHAPEL are from the same mold, and as Buchan knows, the past is only momentarily buried; it stands ready to spring to life again and claim the unwary present.

The second season dealt with the criminal legacy of the famous brothers the Crays. Although well done, it lacked the darkness (and the horrific overtones) of the Ripper storyline. This season the story is back in full Gothic Horror mode, as a mass murder echoes a similar massacre from one hundred years earlier, and a sinister, almost vampiric individual walks the sidewalks and back alleys. There are disturbing and frightening images, and as one witness states in the first episode, “I saw the Devil walking in Whitechapel.” I think this season should be quite extraordinary, and I hope you'll follow the investigation as enthusiastically as I will.


 

 

Edgar Allen Poe has been adapted for the screen more times than any other American author (although I'm certain Stephen King is approaching him). Indeed, I believe it's possible he may be the most adapted author ever, but I'm not positive. In any case, perhaps the most famous of the Poe adaptations were the series of films produced and directed by Roger Corman in the 1960s and 70s. Although some tread far from the actual tale (THE PIT AND THE PENDULAM for one), all are respectful of the literary qualities that make up Mr. Poe's work, and at least one of them, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, is magnificent.

(It should be noted that the screenwriters for the Poe films were Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, two masters of the macabre that also wrote extensively for Rod Serling's THE TWILIGHT ZONE series. One other writer wrote THE TOMB OF LIGEIA; Robert Towne, who penned CHINATOWN, among other critically-acclaimed films. So it's fair to say that the writing on the Poe films contributed to their overall success and pedigree.)

But in addition to these, there have been numerous adaptations, from Vincent Price's wonderful one-man show of Poe readings (filmed by Dan Curtis of DARK SHADOWS fame) to the THRILLER episode "The Premature Burial," which featured Boris Karloff out from behind his narrator's duties. There have been short films from France , and omnibus movies such as SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (of which everyone raves about the final episode directed by Federico Fellini; I myself prefer the middle episode, an adaptation of "William Wilson" expertly directed by Louis Malle).

And in 1953, Columbia Pictures produced the following animated short for theaters, narrated by James Mason. It has the distinction of being the first animated movie rated X (for adults only) by the British Board of Censors, and it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short of 1953.

The film is marvelous, and it still holds up quite well. The artwork is dark and surreal, as if Dali and Gorey collaborated. I can readily understand why the British were protective of their young ones; I can only imagine the nightmares in 1953 that this would have produced! James Mason gives a superb performance and, brilliant and most unsettling of all, the movie takes the story (which it adapts quite faithfully) and gives it a circular finale that will raise goosebumps.

I'm surprised to say that I've never run across this short in any other reference; I'm delighted to present it to you this month! You can view it by clicking on the image below. (For more thoughts on Horror and the Oscars, you can go to my THOUGHTS & REVERIES Page.)


 

 

Can you name a book that literally changed your life? 

There have been lists made of landmark books and books that must be read in a person's lifetime; scholars have published papers, the New York Times and Amazon have compiled suggestions. Some books appear on several lists, and are rightly regarded as "essentials;" "To Kill A MockingBird," "Catcher In The Rye," "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," "Ulysses," and "One Hundred Years Of Solitude" number among them. Many when asked list The Bible , but I'm often suspicious of that, wondering if people feel that should be the book listed, much like certain people refuse to admit they watch television except for PBS. (Um- Hmmmmm...) Of course, the "Lord Of The Rings" makes many lists as well, as does "1984," "A Clockwork Orange" and "Fahrenheit 451," among other highly regarded works of speculative fiction.

And Newberry Award-winner "A Wrinkle In Time."

Mention this book to someone who read it in their youth, and you'll be greeted with a wide smile and almost breathless enthusiasm. No doubt you'll discover that this person still has their copy (sometimes more than one) on a place of honor on their bookshelves, and they've passed the tale on to others with the admonishment, "Read this. It'll change everything!"

Why? What is this book that almost universally makes the short list of both best children's book, best speculative fiction for children, and best speculative fiction period?

First of all, it's astonishingly well written. Madeleine L'Engle was a uncommonly gifted writer, well versed in both Hard and Humanist Science Fiction. She had the inspiration to write the book after reading of Einstein's Physics Calculations, and used the science prominently in her novels. She was also a very devout Episcopalian and author in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Because of this, much of her work details the conflicts of magic and morality, science and sanctity, liberty, self-sacrifice and courage. There are no square-jawed space commanders in her SF; there are frail, flawed individuals, far stronger than they imagine, who wrestle with their own limitations as much as any outside malevolence, and find within themselves the compassion and strength to reach past their fears.

"A Wrinkle In Time" is ostensibly a mystery; Dr, Murry has disappeared as the result of a scientific experiment, and the Murry children - older sister Meg, younger brother and savant Charles Wallace, and neighbor friend Calvin - set off on an adventure to find him, directed by the celestial beings Mrs Whatzit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which, in a chase across the galaxy. They find a planet under the command of a supreme and evil force, and as young Charles Wallace falls under its control, it falls to Meg to find the one gift she possesses that will save her brother and herself.

Not your average young adult read, and indeed, the philosophy is only party of the power of this book. How many youngsters received their first awakening to the realities of a crushing, oppressive society when meg, trying to focus her mind on resisting evil's power, recites the Declaration of Independence: "...all men are created equal." The force seizes on this: but that's what it's like here; everyone is the same. "No!," cries Meg. "Being the same and being equal are two different things!" If only adults understood that concept as well... (Ms. L'Engle is quoted as saying, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Well said, my Dear...)

Ms. L'Engle wrote many books, both for children and adults, including non-fiction books on Art and Philosophy. "A Wrinkle In Time" was the first of several books about the Murrys, and the tales interweave with another series about the O'Keefe clan, and the backgrounds and trivia are as detailed and rich as any in the Narnia, Tolkien, STAR TREK and STAR WARS universes. All the books are wonderful, but it was "A Wrinkle In Time" that began it all, and that remains the touchstone (for many, as well as for myself) for great Children's Literature of the Dark and Light Fantastic. It is simply an unforgettable book...and a life-changing one.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of this extraordinary publication (which was rejected - rejected! - by 26 publishers! Take that to heart, all you struggling and aspiring writers!). To mark this milestone, a year long celebration is planned across the country. (You can learn some of the details by logging in HERE.) The Macmillan Children's Publishing Group releases 50th anniversary editions of the novel as a Farrar, Straus and Giroux hardcover. You can order an advanced copy by clicking on the image below. (You can in fact by several anniversary copies, including a collection of the five Murray novels in one paperback. But I intend to purchase the hardback. Please don't buy it on Kindle, get a book you can hold in your hands. Thank you.) There's also a graphic novel planned that I'm very much looking forward to.

But amid all the hubbub and celebration, there is , first and foremost, the novel. Buy a copy for yourself, and buy a few extra for those you love to give for no reason in particular.

But be very careful with them; they may change a person's life.

 

 

It isn't very often that I recommend something to your attention that I haven't seen myself, but this month's film has such an ingenious conceit, an idea that excites me so much that I have no hesitation in bringing it to your attention.

Some background on this extraordinary work: when H. P. Lovecraft began publishing his classic work on the 1920s, the film industry was just beginning to make its mark upon the world. Radio was the entertainment and news medium of choice, along with the legitimate stage and various traveling circuits. Mr. Lovecraft was a harsh critic of many adaptations of classic Horror, including Universal's FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, and he refused many requests to have his work dramatized for radio, film and theater. In his own words:

“What a popular dialogue-arranger could do to the atmosphere and artistic integrity of a seriously written story is appalling to contemplate! I shall never permit anything bearing my signature to be banalized and vulgarized into the kind the flat infantile twaddle which passes for “horror tales” amongst radio and cinema audiences!”

Fairly venomous, but hardly off the mark, considering some of the adaptations that have been filmed of his stories. Beyond a few – the NIGHT GALLERY episodes “Pickman's Model” and “Cool Air,” THE HAUNTED PALACE (from “The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward” ), moments of DAGON and HERBERT WEST – REANIMATOR (which was never one of Mr. Lovecraft's favorite tales) – most adaptations have been pretty pale affairs.

But…what if Mr. Lovecraft had taken a chance and allowed a film version of “The Call Of Cthulhu?” And what if the filmmakers had dedicated themselves to making as respectful a work as possible…using the technology and techniques of the silent films of 1928, when the short story was originally published?

Such is the concept of THE CALL OF CTHULHU, a 47 minute feature film, creating using the techniques of the original silent movies, as though the creators were making a contemporary version of Mr. Lovecraft's tale for his viewing pleasure. Loving crafted, this amazing film will have Fans of the Mythos cheering in the aisles, and I believe would have brought an appreciative smile to Mr. Lovecraft's stern features.

Scripted by Sean Branney, directed by Andrew Leman and produced by both gentlemen, THE CALL OF CTHULHU has atmosphere to spare, faithfully recreating the time period Mr. Lovecraft lived and wrote in, and recreating his dark, cosmic horrors through shadow and suggestion. It's an astonishingly well-crafted for a low-budget effort, but the professionalism shines through in every frame. And the conceit – the greatest Lovecraft adaptation of the 1920s that never was – is still terrific; so terrific, in fact, that the filmmakers have adapted another tale, THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS, with the additional device that this story, written in 1931, is a full-length talkie in the classic Universal mold.

If you want to learn more about both films, you can log onto “Cthulhu Lives!” , the website of the H P Lovecraft Historical Society. (You can find it by going to my LINKS Page.) To view the trailer for THE CALL OF CTHULHU , click on the poster image below. (And check out the rest of the information on the film when you're done!)

 

 

A few months ago, I offered my opinion on the current debate about 3D in the movies. Although I agreed that the process had not been used as successfully in many films as it might have been (being reduced to a simple gimmick by issue movie's filmed ‘flat' in a revised 3D format), I also wanted to withhold judgment on the technique until a worthy director made use of the technology to see what it could accomplish when used properly.

That time has come; the film is HUGO , the director is Martin Scorsese, and the movie is one of the best films of the year, and of Mr. Scorcese's career. It is a masterwork, a wonder of eye and mind and emotion, and one of the most perfect holiday celebrations I've had the chance to attend. It is an amazing adventure, a love story (several, in fact), a mystery, and above all else, a valentine to the art of making movies and the history behind the art form, as well as a loving tribute to one of its pioneers. It is the very best example of what can be called “a family movie;” a film adults and children can watch enthralled together.

The film is based on the children's book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick (which I confess I haven't read). Many people were astonished that Mr. Scorsese, known for his violent adult fare such as GOODFELLAS , TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL , would turn his attention to a book for young people. But the story concerns the early days of movie-making, and one of the pioneers of silent films, and Mr. Scorsese is a cinemaphile of the highest degree. This fable, for fable it truly is, is certainly very close to his heart, and he lavishes all his artistic skill and passion on the tale of a lost young boy, a bitter old man, and the secret that brings them together.

Hugo Cabret is an orphan; his mother died when he was a baby, and his father is killed in a fire at the museum where he worked. The son of a clockmaker from generations of clockmakers before him, Hugo is taken in by his ne'er-do-well uncle, who winds the clock at the Gare Montparnasse Station in Paris in 1930. When the uncle disappears, Hugo continues to care for the clock so that no one will suspect that he is alone. He lives behind the walls and in the metal girders of the train station and the clock tower, spying on the world that passes through the station's gates, trying always to avoid detection and capture by the station inspector.

Hugo has a secret hidden in his loft, and this secret brings him into contact with an old man selling and repairing toys in a shop in the station. The old man, bitter and beaten down by life and the world around him, has a secret of his own, and as Hugo and the old man's goddaughter Isabelle work to solve their mutual mysteries, the lives of everyone dovetail neatly in the past and present. Pasts are revealed, puzzles are solved, and Hugo and Papa Georges's lives intersect and build towards a climax that is moving and wondrous.

To tell more would be a disservice to this marvelous film, which combines fact and fiction flawlessly. The performances – Asa Butterfield as Hugo, Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle, Jude Law as Hugo's father, Helen McCrory as Mama Jeanne – are flawless as well; Sacha Baron Cohen is a comic delight as the Station Inspector, full of bluff and bluster but also literally walking wounded from WWI, and he reveals emotional depth that I'd never suspected. And Ben Kingsley! If there is any justice next year, he will be handed an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor next year; his performance is a marvel and shoulders the movie effortlessly. (And for fans of films macabre, Christopher Lee graces the screen in a lovely performance as a bookseller who is not as he appears at first glance.)

The production design is astonishing, and the camerawork literally soars around the City of Lights , creating a fantasyland no less phantasmagorical than Oz or Narnia. Mr. Scorsese has planned the look of this film carefully, using the 3D effects not for show but to open up the depth of Hugo's dreams and world. There is an homage to Harold Lloyd that will literally give you vertigo, and a tribute to audience reaction to the birth of film (and footage of a train arriving at a station) that delights. If you know anything about the early days of cinema, you'll find HUGO a treasure trove, recreating a time when dreams literally lived on the movie screen, and the filmmakers were actual magicians.

HUGO isn't a fantasy film, but it is about magic and wonder, dreams and fantastical inventions, and the healing power of love, art and memory. I don't think you'll be disappointed by this glorious film, or begrudge the use of those expensive glasses. I urge everyone to see it on the biggest screen possible. You'll thank me, and Hugo and Papa Georges will thank you.

 

 

Lesley Pratt Bannatyne may well be the foremost living authority on Halloween in America . She is also a gracious and delightful lady who I met one year while performing in Jim Thorpe, PA at the (sadly) now defunct Halloween Opera craft show. She was there is give a lecture on American Halloween traditions, and the extent of her knowledge and enthusiasm was breathtaking.

She seemed to greatly enjoy the company of my fellow Patient Creatures and myself, and I know that she corresponded with my Devil companion Kuzibah some time after the event. I lost touch with her personally, but kept abreast of her research and writing for the past several years. She is the author of several books about the October Season, including "A Halloween Reader; Stories, Poems and Plays from Halloweens Past," "A Halloween How-To; Costumes, Parties, Decorations and Destinations," and "Halloween; An American Holiday , An American History."

Although Ms. Bannatyne has a thorough knowledge of the roots and beginnings of what we now regard as Halloween, one of her greatest strengths is the chronicling of the holiday as an American event, tracing American customs and pastimes from the earliest celebrations to the multi-million dollar event it is today. She writes entertainingly and informatively about Halloween's place in Americana both past and present, and her unique perspective brings a sense of solid history to an event shrouded in mystery.

Her latest work, and possibly her magnum opus (until her next book) is "Halloween Nation; Behind The Scenes of America's Fright Night," a large paperback that examines all aspects of Halloween today, from haunted attractions to zombie walks, Horror movie icons to Goth Burlesque dancers, Dark Fantasy Artists to Halloween collectors. It takes every possible view and vantage point of the holiday and its offshoots in daily life, and demonstrates that the Season is (pardon the pun) alive, it's alive!! and very well indeed!

I've been reading the book slowly, but I've already paged through it at various points, based on information in the index. It's that kind of book, an easy reference as well as a narrative non-fiction, much like Stephen King's "Danse Macabre." Ms. Bannatyne interviews diverse genre participants as Scream Queen Debbie Rochon, graphic artist Chad Savage, burlesque performer Evilyn Sin Claire, tattoo artist Joe Boo, haunted attraction effects manufacturers Gore Galore, rock band Witches In Bikinis, and even award-winning author and my personal friend, P. D. Cacek! (Who for some reason never told me she was being interviewed for a book! Shame on you!) Ms. Bannatyne visits haunted hayrides, pumpkin-carving contests, urban street parties, tattoo parlors, and other locations to talk to those with a deep and abiding love, fascination and passion about the October Season. In addition, she puts everything in American historical context; this book is as much for your favorite American history buff (who appreciates the work of David McCullough and James Loewen). You learn where our practices originated, and get some sense of where they're going as well.

In short, for those who want to relax and take a closer look at the holiday they just spent countless hours involved in, "Halloween Nation" is well worth the price. Read through it carefully or flip through it leisurely, you'll put this on a special place on your bookshelf, taking it down again and again to reread  and share with others. Halloween may not be entirely dependent on Ms. Bannatyne and her scholarship, but we're much, much richer for her enthusiasm. Thank you so much, my Dear
!

To purchase Ms. Bannatyne's book, click on the image below.

 

 

Those who've seen my performances know that I am often accompanied by music. Indeed, I think music is a wonderful tool to use in the dramatic arts, especially during spoken word performances. They allow emphasis and underlining of important moments, comment on the tale being told, and provide a rich atmosphere, particularly for tales of the Uncanny.

I am also very fond of the music often played during the Holiday Seasons. Christmas music, be it contemporary or traditional, can put me immediately into a seasonal frame of mind, no matter the time of day or circumstances I find myself in. It becomes the soundtrack to the weeks before and after the Holiday , and though some choose to complain about the continuous playing of carols in shopping malls, I choose to let it anchor my spirit into that time and place. (With exceptions, of course. Unless they truly understand what they are doing, hearing one more contemporary and often far too young artist try to interpret a seasonal standard is enough to make me flee to a more tranquil environment...like Bosnia, for instance...)

There has been a phenomenon of late concerning the October Season. When you peruse the drug stores, malls and Halloween superstores that sell merchandize and costumes, you won't fail to fins one or two new CDs with names like "Halloween Party!" or "Halloween Rock" or "Scary Sounds For Halloween!" Usually these contain the same several songs repackaged; you'll find Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear The Reaper," Credence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising," Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You," Sheb Wooley's "Purple People Eater," Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters," and of course Bobby Pickett's "Monster Mash." (An amusing note: my devil companion Kuzibah once noted that in October every radio station in America suddenly remembered that they owned "Monster Mash" , and blew the dust off it to play it 12 or 13 times per day in honor of the Holiday...) You also find movie and television themes, such as "The Addams Family," "The Twilight Zone," "The Exorcist," "The Omen," "Poltergeist" ...well, you get the idea.

Now I should tell you that some years ago it was not common for these collections to be sold. I'm happy to say that my fellow Patient Creatures and I, realizing there was a void to be filled, put together our own private collection of Halloween and Halloween-suggestive songs for the coffin-shaped jukebox in the Last Call Undead Cocktail Lounge room of the late, lamented Haunted Theatre back in Norristown PA (about 40 minutes outside of Philadelphia ). But in addition to songs that definitely cried out "Samhain!", I added a few that suggested the season in a quieter, more subtle way: Thomas Dolby's version of the jazz standard "I Scare Myself," Cream's "Strange Brew," Lindsey Buckingham's "Go Insane," Genesis's "Home By The Sea" (which is about a haunted house, after all). I was quite proud of our achievement, and we immediately dubbed it The Ultimate Halloween Party Tape. (I told you it was a while ago.)

Apparently others had the same thought, listening to amusement parks play the soundtrack to  THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS for the umpteenth time that night, and so the Halloween compilation was born. If we'd gotten ours out there first, perhaps we'd be the richest spectres on the planet. But we didn't. Woulda, Coulda Shoulda...ahhh, well. But it was a fine niche to be filled, and if I have any complaints about them, it's that too often the songs are predictable, and trod well-worn musical paths.

Still, where is the 'serious' music for this Season we love so dear? Besides the classics like Saint-Saens' "Dance Macabre" or Mussorgsky's "Night On Bald Mountain ;" where is the music that fills our spirits with the sensations of the October Holiday; its sights, smells, tastes and sounds? Where is the Halloween version of "White Christmas" or "Do You Hear What I Hear?" or "Holly Jolly Christmas" or "The Little Drummer Boy" or "Winter Wonderland?" Where is the music that follows the traditional examples of these standards, to express musical feelings for Halloween without blaring electric guitars and full-throated death-metal screaming? It seems that is a niche that still requires filling.

Or it did until now.

I first became captivated with the beautiful and talented Kristen Lawrence when I found her personal site on MySpace, which lead me to her website. After only a short visit I understood exactly what Ms. Lawrence was attempting and, in my opinion, succeeding at like a wizard. She was composing and recording Halloweens standards, songs and music that could easily be placed beside "The First Noel" and "I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day" and Nat King Cole's classic "The Christmas Song;" respectful, lush and delightful tunes that evoked the coming darkness and the spooky magic that belongs to this part of the year.

Ms. Lawrence is a classically trained organist who love is for music extends equally to classical and well as Classic Rock and Classic Folk. As she expresses so eloquently:

In December we pull out our Christmas CDs, but what do we pull out in October?  Cheap, “spooky” sound effects and time-weary compilations?  It makes me sad. I think Danny Elfman gave us some great stuff with his music for “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride,” and I love what he creates.  But we need more!  And I have my own style to give you.”

“...I have always had a love for old Christmas carols – carols that have survived centuries to delight us today.  One of my most exciting purchases ever was The New Oxford Book of Carols .  I am intrigued by what makes a carol a treasure – these perfect, concise gems of music.  Some of these carols survive from the medieval era and are well known today, like “Veni, Veni, Emanuel.”  I endeavor to do the same thing for Halloween.  I hope I have created (and continue to create) beautiful, charming, intriguing music that will last for centuries.”
 

I've championed Ms. Lawrence's work before; last year in my THOUGHT & REVERIES Essay on, oddly enough, Halloween music. And I highly recommended then, and do this month, her three CDs of extraordinary material: “A Broom With A View,” “Arachnitect” and “Vampire Empire.” Whether you want a change of pace for your party soundtrack, some mood music to greet the trick-or-treaters, or some stirring sounds to lull you to rest after a frantic evening of macabre mischief-making, I think you'll find Ms. Lawrence the perfect fit. She writes and composes with an ear towards the mysterious and magical, with a hint of wry humor and sardonic spookiness yet respectful of the traditions and rites of Samhain. I'd be hard-pressed to choose my favorites, but certainly "Ghost Of John," “Souling Song,” “Blood Waltz” (with lyrics), and “Vampire Empire” are near the top. Ms. Lawrence has a gift for the macabre and I look forward to her future endeavors.

But if you're in the mood for the sort of music you'll find on a Halloween CD, you can't do better than HalloweenRadio.Net and HalloweenRadio.Com Both are excellent sources of music for your October errands.

What I like about these webcasts is the variety; they seem to have the same sensibilities that my fellow Creatures and I had when choosing their libraries, which overlap considerably. In a short span recently I heard Crash Test Dummies "The Ghosts That Haunt Me," Concrete Blonde's "Bloodletting," Archie Bleyer's "The Rockin' Ghost," Camille Saint-Saens' "Danse Macabre," Weird Al Yankovic's "Nature Trail To Hell" (a personal favorite), Jerry Goldsmith's "Theme From Poltergeist," and Mitch Ryder's "Devil With The Blue Dress ." They also feature some spoken word performances by Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and other Horror personalities.

Neither station is perfect, of course; recently, ‘Net separated its library into “ Main ,” “Atmosphere,” “Oldies” and “Kids,” and I prefer my music mixed together for greater variety. ‘Com has difficulty with its live playlist link, so you don't always know the song or artist being played, and doesn't list a “Favorites” or “Latest” playlist like ‘Net does. But if enough of us offer suggestions, I'm certain these bugs can be worked out of their systems, and I think both stations would be a wonderful source of music throughout the year, whenever you find yourself in a Halloween mode. (I intend to list both next month on my LINKS Page for easy access.)

To log onto Ms. Lawrence's website and learn more about her music, please click on the image below.


To access HalloweenRadio.Net or HalloweenRadio.Com; click on their respective banners.


 

 

Those who know me well understand that I consider author William Goldman to be an exceptional talent. Whether it's his non-fiction such as "Adventures In The Screen Trade" or "Which Lie Did I Tell?", his mainstream novels such as "The Temple Of Gold" and "The Color Of Light", or his filmwork, which includes his original screenplays BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID and THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER as well as his adaptations ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and A BRIDGE TOO FAR, I find his work imaginative, compelling, fiercely intelligent and original. He has the ability to take wonderfully diverse and believable characters and place them in extraordinary and (usually) terrible situations without stretching the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. When you sign on with him as your guide, I find that usually you are assured of an amazing journey.

Though many do not actually think of him as such, Mr. Goldman has said that he considers himself "a genre writer". In this stead he has explored the thriller (his classic "Marathon Man", made into a terrific film, and "Heat", not as well known but an equally well-done movie, actually improving on the novel, in my opinion) children's literature (the wonderful "The Silent Gondoliers" and probably his most famous effort "The Princess Bride") and Horror (he has adapted no less than four of Stephen King's works for film, including the award-winning MISERY).

In his original efforts, we find only two that can be considered Horror, but they are truly unsurpassed. First is his rather famous book "Magic", which I consider one of the finest Horror novels of the 20th century.

(WARNING!!! WARNING!!! Right now, if you know nothing about "Magic", do not read anything about it or the movie that was adapted from it. The movie, as admirable as it is, gives away one of the most terrifying and shocking moments in literature. You MUST go purchase the novel and read it NOW, before you learn anything else about it. This has been an ULTIMATE SPOILER WARNING!!!)

As I was saying...one of Mr. Goldman's strengths is his ability to pull what he calls "The Reversal" . This is simply a plot twist that is logically and naturally conceived, but which comes out of nowhere to stun and startle the reader or viewer. One of his earliest was in his film collaboration MASQUERADE. A secret agent is being held prisoner in a circus, inside a cage next to another cage holding a viscous looking condor. The agent notices some keys hanging on the wall a good length away. (Yes, a truly clichéd situation, but wait...!) He notices two long bamboo poles in the condor's cage, and retrieves them to pull the keys from the wall. This involves much pecking and slashing at the agent's hands and skin by the condor, and the sequence is agonizingly suspenseful and brutal. The agent must submit himself to this twice, because the first bamboo rod isn't long enough to reach the keys. But after the second violent attempt he is successful, retrieves the keys from the wall hook, slides them down the bamboo, puts them into the lock...

...and they don't fit; they're the wrong keys. Which is why the villains were foolish enough to leave them hanging nearby on the wall: because it didn't really matter!

Mr. Goldman is famous for moments like this, and there is a moment in the middle of the novel "Magic": that is such an incredible reversal that, upon reading it for the first time, I almost dropped the book. Then I was certain I'd read it wrong, and reread the passage again. It is one of the most truly shocking and unexpected moments in modern literature; I would put it on par with the revelation that Norman Bates and his homicidal mother are one and the same.

Mr. Goldman practices the time-honored art of "Mind Games" . And he does so magnificently.

Which brings me to his other genre work, "Control". Not necessarily Horror; more SF, but a strange melding of Science Fiction, Thriller, Gothic and Police Procedural. And I can do no more than recommend it to you unreservedly. I can't tell you anything about it, because the carefully designed plot is a huge, glorious Mind Game that will startle you and take you completely by surprise. Mr. Goldman juggles characters and concepts as diverse as imaginable, and keeps the balls in the air effortlessly.

Oh, I can whisper a few of the characters: a housewife who decides to become an artist. two dedicated police detectives, a penniless poet, the kept, young wife of an industrialist, a narcissistic and arrogant if not completely mad scientist, and a hulking, murderous brute that strikes out at anything in his reach. These characters weave in and out of the narrative, and their relationships will keep you guessing. There is a strange scientific experiment financed by the military, and a violent confrontation between one of the detectives and the brute that is an edge-of-your-seat battle. (Mr. Goldman believes he's at his best when pain is in the air, and I think he's correct.)

But I can tell you nothing more for fear of spoiling this modern mad mélange, what Thomas Disch referred to as a “‘sensation novel', the genre that offered the public of the 1830s and ‘40s new heights of melodrama at a time when the gothic novel was played out.” You will be amply rewarded for navigating the treacherous rapids of this singularly unique thriller.

Enough! I can say no more! Read "Control", and if you haven't yet, read "Magic". And learn nothing about them beforehand!

And let the surprises commence...


 

 

Two recommendations this month, both concern the world of HorrorHosts...

The Golden Age of the HorrorHost  -  the spooky, often comic presence that would interrupt Horror films shown during the late night hours or weekend afternoons with ironic commentary on the terrible film you were viewing  -  came during the late 1950s and 60s, and began to fade into revered memory by the end of the 70s when local independent television programming was being replaced by infomercials and talk shows. Yes, the movement was revived here or there in the 1980s, most notably by Elvira or Joe Bob Briggs, and there is a whole subculture of Horror Hosts still working in the field of public broadcasting, community access television and the Internet. (The HorrorHost Underground features many fine companions, including Dr. Gangrene, A. Ghastlee Ghoul, Dr. Sarcofaguy, who still tireless advocate for this very American art form...and I believe it is indeed an artistic expression, now more than ever when each HorrorHost is responsible for his own production, editing, script, direction and other nuts-&-bolts decisions that go into broadcasting.)

Still, the 50s and 60s was truly the time when every major television market had their own Horror Host, most doubling as weathermen, news anchors and children's programming hosts. Back then on the local stations, these tireless workers did everything , and their individual stamp of ingenuity was often repaid with boundless enthusiasm and a devoted fandom. To HorrorHost fans, the names Zacherly, Sir Cecil Crepe, Count Gore De Vol, Vampira, Ghoulardi, Dr. Creep and others have the same heart-pounding ring as Sandy Kofax, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle. They are still talked about and loved, decades after their final broadcast.

If you are among those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, who never had your own local HorrorHost and are complete unfamiliar with their trade, you can find an excellent primer in the documentary AMERICAN SCARY . Directed by John E. Hudgens and written by Sandy Clark, AMERICAN SCARY is as complete an introduction to HorrorHosting as you could want. Featuring interviews with past hosts, along with current HorrorHosts from around the country (disclosure number one: I have several good friends who have been interviewed for the film, including Bob Hinton, Shane Dallmann, PD Cacek, and John Dimes), along with celebrity reminiscences from Forrest J Ackerman, Neil Gaiman, Bob Burns, Tim Conway, Joel Hodgson and Leonard Maltin, AMERICAN SCARY breaks the HorrorHost history down into easily absorbed categories, such as female hosts, hosts without characters, the Ohio experience, and the groundbreakers such as Vampira and Zacherly, with running commentary throughout.

Is the film perfect? Not quite; there is an extended sequence at the end with Neil Gaiman that adds nothing to the movie. There is also criticism from some of the more seasoned HorrorHosts and fans that the documentary skips around too much and leaves out important material. They also opine that much of the information presented is common knowledge among true Horror fans. But I believe they're missing an important point: this film isn't for the seasoned fan; this is for the novice who has no idea what a HorrorHost is, and how they affected television viewing in that simpler time when local programming was still exploring what the medium could do. (I know this because I've shown the film to those who wouldn't know a HorrorHost from a tuna, and they found the information presented fascinating.) This is an introductory primer, and vast overview of the phenomenon, and what it chooses to do I believe it does quite well.

If you're looking for more in-depth examination of HorrorHosting, allow me to point you towards EVERY OTHER DAY IS HALLOWEEN ,  which focuses on the life and time of Dick Dyszel, a Washington DC-based entertainer best known for his roles as Bozo the Clown, kiddie SF host Captain 20, and Count Gore De Vol, whose weekly web program CREATURE FEATURE became the first Internet HorrorHosting platform. Written by John Dimes and C. W. Prather and directed by Mr. Prather, the film is a valentine to a gentleman who made an enormous impact on those growing up in the Virginia/Maryland/Washington DC area during the 1960s through the 1980s, and whose popularity continues unabated today. (Disclosure number two: Count Gore, in addition to being my webmaster and webhost for my online crypt, is a good human friend, as are Misters Dimes and Prather.)

Teeming with vintage television clips and outtakes from Mr. Dyszel's career, the movie provides an in-depth example of what the local HorrorHost phenomenon meant to the viewers and avid fans tuning in weekly, and paints a picture of a man genuinely beloved by generations. Fans who would watch Count Gore as children now introduce their children to him at his convention appearances, and if the loyalty and love of your audience is any indication of a successful life, then Mr. Dyszel has been very successful indeed. If I have any criticism of the movie, an a very mild criticism it is indeed, it's that towards the end Mr. Prather feels the need to explore the next generation of HorrorHosts in the Washington DC area. While this is interesting, my heart was with Mr. Dyszel, and I wanted more information on him rather than the side journey that concludes the documentary. (Disclosure number three: it's possible that this information has been edited down for the release of the movie; I was lucky enough to see it in it's first 'rough cut'.)

Halloween and the October Season will be with us before we know it, and I can think of no better double feature for one of those dark weekends. Gather the family around and enjoy these loving tributes to an art form that, while certainly not lost, is sadly a shadow of what it was a long time ago. And while you're enjoying these offerings, sigh a bit at the sad fact that, with cable and television controlled by corporations and networks with little independent talent and output, we will probably never see these times again...

(Note: some younger children may be bored by these films, and the language and innuendo found in the clips played in AMERICAN SCARY are not for all ages; as always, parental and viewer discretion is advised.)

You can find these movies by clicking on the images below:


PS One of the extras found on AMERICAN SCARY is the footage of Yours Truly and my fellow Patient Creatures presiding over the HorrorHost wedding of A. Ghastlee Ghoul and Suspiria at Cinema Wasteland in October 2003! (I'd previously posted the footage here in my crypt.) Do enjoy the ceremony, and throw rice at your own leisure and risk...

 

 

Many critics and references will declare that Paddy Chayefsky's first Horror/SF work was ALTERED STATES , one of my favorite films of all time (and novels as well). But I disagree. The prolific satirist always had a flair for very Black Comedy, and a taste for the macabre that would bring a smile to your lips while causing you to suppress a shudder.

In probably his most famous work NETWORK , it was the madness of anchorman Howard Beale becoming a ratings success by broadcasting his insanity to the world at large, proclaiming "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" to citizens fed up with their own existences. It was the in the cynical programming decisions of Diana Christensen that foreshadowed today's explosion of Reality programming and daytime talk shows. And it climaxed in the on-air assassination of "the only man in history killed for low ratings."

Now that's dark...

But the darkness was apparent five years earlier in his scathing script for THE HOSPITAL , and examination of the shortcomings of modern health care that hasn't aged one bit; indeed, it may be more topical than ever in the political climate of today. I remembered the film from years ago, and was pleasantly reminded of its power to amuse and disturb when catching it recently on television.

George C. Scott (in a near-perfect performance) is the Chief of Medicine at a huge, crumbling New York hospital. The place is short-staffed; the doctors are often narcissistic posers with divine complexes who are more interested in making money than healing, the community at large, a melting pot of Black/Hispanic/Asian/White has been simmering for the summer and is about to explode, the Emergency Room is filled with victims of urban neglect and abuse...and there is a serial killer wandering the halls, enacting a very strange revenge...

Now, the medical profession has always been a sharp topic for examination in Horror, all the way back to the practices of Doctors Frankenstein and Jekyll. But rarely has Horror so carefully and eerily examined the realistic Horror of the modern medical profession, with its carefully quiet conspiracies about money, prestige, mistakes, and corporate bureaucracy that is often more concerned with procedure and practice than results. (Although Michael Crichton's COMA comes very close.) In one of the sharpest images from the movie (a classic of 1970s filmmaking), a stern administrator stares down at a blood-gushing gunshot victim and proclaims darkly, "You aren't going anywhere until I get your Blue Cross number!" With everyday horrors such as these, a deranged killer running loose blends into the background like so much Muzak heard in the hallways...

George C. Scott has some sharp and funny moments, but he's mainly there as the voice and island of sanity in this swirling madhouse. He hasn't lost the ability to care; to see the people passing through the system as individuals instead of faceless symptoms, and his humanity grounds the film sharply from veering off into farce or absolute despair. He is brilliant, and brilliantly aided by Diana Rigg, Barnard Hughes (look for him in an uncredited dual role!), Richard Dysart, Stephen Elliot, and a cast of familiar New York character actors. The direction by Arthur Hiller is sparse and low-key, perfectly suiting the material.

And the words! Paddy Chayefsky came from the same live-television background of Rod Serling and Reginald Rose; all three had an ear for the language of the average working man, and a healthy respect for the lone man overwhelmed by the world around him. Like Serling, Mr. Chayefsky's dialogue is a kind of beat-poetry of the urban jungle, carrying the plot while deepening the characters and adding texture and subtext to the simplest situation. Some of the most entertaining moments of ALTERED STATES concerned the scientists throwing around scientific theory and four-letter obscenities in equal measure, and way scientists genuinely talk to each other, but on a heightened plane. He does the same thing here with medical terminology in THE HOSPITAL, painting portraits of despair with glimmers of hope around the fogged edges.

This is a tough film, make no mistake; there are dark moments worthy of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS . Even though it's not generally regarded as a Horror Film, I believe fans and followers of the genre will find much to appreciate in this work, and understand one of the older artistic sensibilities: tragedy is simply comedy from another perspective, and sometimes we have to laugh to keep from shrieking...



 

 

I'm not a huge fan of R. L. Stine's "Goosebumps" books; I feel there are better examples of Horror and Dark Fantasy to introduce young readers to. However, children eat the tales up like so much Halloween candy, and as more than a few critics far greater than I have pointed out, anything that encourages young people to read so voraciously cannot be a bad thing. Furthermore, growing up on "Goosebumps" can lead youngsters to the works of Roald Dahl, Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and other literary figures in our genre that capture the imagination of early readers of the macabre; this is also a very good thing.

Now Mr. Stine has lent his name to a television series based on his "Haunting Hour" books, and I'm very pleased to recommend this show to old and young viewers alike. Named, naturally enough, R. L. STINE'S THE HAUNTING HOUR, the series can be found on the Hub Network (formerly Discovery Kids), and is a half-hour anthology series in the vein of a young THE TWILIGHT ZONE, NIGHT GALLERY and THRILLER.

I do not conjure those names lightly. Yes, some of the stories are retreads of genre themes explored thoroughly in adult literature and drama. But these tales introduce youngsters to the time-honor templates, and does so with fine acting, extremely high production values, sharp writing and directing, and a truly disturbing sense of uneasiness that is quite extraordinary for a "kids show". Indeed, I think many adults will appreciate the mood and terror conjured through misdirection, suggestion and a lack of graphic violence. Some of the imagery used in this series in genuinely disturbing, and will probably give very young children nightmares. (Hub Network has an advisory before each episode, warning that some scenes may be too frightening for children under 7, and advising families to watch the show together. I find that fitting advise for most television, but for this show in particular, and give the network kudos for the courage of their artistic convictions while leaving the discretion to individual parents.)

There is a terrific episode of a doll that is slowly coming to life, trying to take the place of the real little daughter in the family. The daughter has a history of normal bad childhood behavior, and she fears her mother does love her as much as she used to. The mother seems to want to be with the doll more than her own daughter, and the doll begins to play pranks that disrupt the household, driving a wedge further between the mother and child, culminating in a truly fearful scene of the child slowly being replaced by the doll, transforming into the toy itself with first an plastic foot, then hand, then finally a body with only one, human staring eye that eventually becomes glass. This is actual nightmare material, playing not only on the universal fear of dolls and manikins, but on children's fear that they might lose their parent's love someday. The episode is incredibly strong, as valid and purposeful as any angst-filled adult episode of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER or THE X FILES, and is sure to spark much conversation in many households, as good fiction should.

What I find most impressive about the series is that not every ending is a happy one; there are times when the powers of darkness do prevail, usually because of flaws in the main character, such as greed, jealousy, bigotry, or dishonesty. The tales are morality fables for the young, just as THE TWILIGHT ZONE was, with a strong lesson that one's sins will be revisited on the perpetrator one hundred fold. The Brothers Grimm would nod in approval, and Mr. Serling would probably smile proudly at the episodes as well. In addition to examining fears of clowns, darkness, empty places and ghostly and horrific creatures, the show touches upon sibling rivalry, parental deception, family loyalty and secrets, and other travails of young minds. AS in the best of the Dark Fantastic, love, courage and faith can overcome the dark, but one must be very careful of the paths chosen.

Parents may have to calm their children down a bit and discuss some of the episodes; that's perfectly fine. (Parents may have to calm themselves down a bit after certain episodes as well, and that's fine too!) But I think this series is a good attempt at putting Horror and Dark Fantasy on television at a level young people can enjoy. Many children have an almost bottomless appetite for the weird, wonderful and macabre, and the scarier the better. (Believe me, I know.) And this show will fill them quite satisfactorily, and encourage them to seek out other examples of film terror.

I lamented some time ago to a newspaper reporter that there wasn't a series like THE TWILIGHT ZONE that children and adults could watch together and discuss afterwards, sharing fun shivery times as a family. Too much filmed Horror was inappropriate for youngsters; much too violent, explicit and nihilistic. THE HAUNTING HOUR is a show for everyone to enjoy, indulging their fears for 30 minutes before laughing and turning the lights back on again. I admire what the producers at Front Street Pictures and The Hatchery have done, and thank them from the bottom of my ectoplasmic heart.



 

 

One of the biggest disappointments in this era of Horror Films is the utter lack of imagination in their marketing. From trailers that give away every aspect of the plot to Internet hype that has you bored with the film by the time it opens, the art of subtlety seems completely lost in the modern promotional machinery.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the poster that promote the movies. All seem to be designed by the same art director; all feature floating heads of the featured performers, along with an image of the monster or iconic (or presumed to be iconic) image: the SCREAM mask, the SAW puppet, etc. Quite often it's difficult to differentiate one new release from another, causing confusion about whether you've really seen the movie or just one with a similar poof sheet…

It didn't used to be that way. Remember the swimmer and the shark from JAWS ? The figure under the streetlight from THE EXORCIST ? The cradle with the clawed hand protruding from IT'S ALIVE ? Of course you do – those images became iconic, because they showed the skill of finding a piece of art that suggested the film without giving away too much of the story, enticing viewers into the theater. In times past, many viewers of Horror films found that the posters promised more treasures than were actually present in the movies themselves…but that was the nature of promotional art, and nobody really begrudged anyone for that talent.

Some of the finest movie posters came from Hammer Studios for their classic films. (My personal favorite? The neck of a beautiful woman, two bite marks covers with band-aids but still dripping blood from beneath for DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, as you can see: )

The artwork suggested terrifying monsters, gothic crypts and cemeteries, and half-dressed women – everything a Horror fan could possibly want in a feature! Now Titan Books has collected some of the best work of these artists in their new coffee-table volume The Art of Hammer: The Official Poster Collection From the Archive of Hammer Films .

Inside you'll find such marvels as THE PLAGUE OF ZOMBIES , THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF , DRACULA , and VAMPIRE CIRCUS . This is a big, glossy, wonderful tome, somewhat pricey, but well worth the money if you, as I, appreciate the artwork of these vintage collectables. I recommend this for every fan of films of the Dark Fantastic. And although Christmas is some time away, you'll want to buy this as a perfect present for your friend the Horror aficionado. (And if you're a fan yourself, you just might want to purchase two, or at least put it at the top of your gift list!)

You can find more information on this book by clicking onto the image below:



 

 

Many of you are familiar with Roald Dahl as the author of classic children's books such as “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory” , “James And The Giant Peach” , “The Witches” and “The BFG” , books that have a dark, macabre sense of humor that set them apart from many tales for young readers. Still others will know him as the author of adult suspense stories such as “Lamb To The Slaughter” and “The Man From The South” , both of which became classic episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS . But what you may not be aware of is that Mr. Dahl once acted as an imitation Rod Serling, hosting his own series in the 1960s that followed after THE TWILIGHT ZONE .

The series was called WAY OUT , and it lasted only a season, partially because it had a lower budget than THE TWILIGHT ZONE and wasn't as carefully crafted. Another reason was that while Mr. Dahl was the jumping off point for the series, hosting and introducing the segments in a droll, dry manner, and his story “William And Mary” was adapted as the first episode, he really had little to do with the story selections or writing of individual episodes. Consequently the shows lacked Mr. Dahl's sharp wit and ghastliness. (A later series, TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED , was a far better attempt to use Mr. Dahl's work, adapting a great many of his stories quite suspensefully.)

Perhaps because of these shortcomings, WAY OUT wasn't a ratings success, and was cancelled after a single short season. Because there were so few episodes produced, it never enjoyed a life in syndication, and has for the most part been considered “lost”, except for a few bootleg segments that have appeared on cassette. This is a shame, because some of the episodes were quite intriguing and eerie, certainly not a total loss of artistic intent.

There was one other huge point of interest in the show. Several segments featured truly startling and disturbing makeup effects, such as a man's face being slowly dissolved from photographic fluid, and an actor who takes the hideous countenance of a street bum for a role, only to discover that the makeup has become his own face. The gentleman responsible for such work? Dick Smith, the Academy Award-winning makeup artist of LITTLE BIG MAN , THE EXORCIST , ALTERED STATES , THE HUNGER , and AMADEUS . WAY OUT was one of his first assignments, and it allowed him to experiment with methods that he would later make famous in his film work.

Although the series has not been released to DVD, several episodes are currently available for viewing online. You can click on the image below to see and download the various episodes. I hope you'll take some time and look at the series. If nothing else, it shows another side to a famous author and opens the door back to a time when anthology series of the uncanny were a mainstay on television. I hope the complete series will eventually be made available for downloading or purchasing. Until then, do enjoy!




 

As anyone who knows me is aware, my admiration for Harlan Ellison knows no bounds. As one with Stephen King, I believe he is perhaps THE fantasist of this century. His credits include such modern classics as "Repent Harlequin, Said The TickTockMan" , "Jeffty Is Five" , " I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream" , "The Whimper Of Whipped Dogs" , "The Deathbird" , "Paladin Of The Lost Hour" , "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes" , "The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World" , and many, many others. He is equally at home in the visual medium as on the printed page, and has won the Writers Guild Award for Best Original Screenplay a record four times. Among his most famous efforts is the classic OUTER LIMITS episode "Demon With A Glass Hand" , and of course, the STAR TREK episode considered the best ever produced, "City On The Edge Of Forever" , with all its controversy.

One of his most famous novellas also became one of his finest pieces of cinema: A BOY AND HIS DOG . A few months ago I had the pleasure of revisiting this movie, which I had not seen in some time, and once again enjoyed it immensely. Co-scripted by Mr. Ellison and the director, L. Q. Jones, I believe (along with Mr. Ellison) that it is one of the finest representations of his work produced. (And I should point out that Mr. Ellison is extremely particular about how his work is adapted; he has nothing but praise for his OUTER LIMITS episodes and much of his work on the 1985 TWILIGHT ZONE revival, and you would have to have lived an isolated and sheltered existence indeed not to know of his extreme dislike of how the STAR TREK episode was rewritten and watered-down from it's original teleplay. I happen to enjoy the televised episode as it stands, believing Mr. Ellison's voice stills comes through loud and strong - but I have also read the original effort, and it is magnificent.)

Filmed on a low budget that hurts the production not one whit, A BOY AND HIS DOG concerns the activities of Vic, a scavenger in a post-apocalyptic landscape, and his traveling companion Blood, a telepathic dog with artificially raised intelligence. The world they wander through is a nightmare of mutated creatures, roving gangs, despair, degradation and rubble, with civilization scattered amid small cities and towns separated by desert wasteland. But there are survivors of the devastation living underground in repressive colonies, and when Vic becomes involved with a girl from the underworld, he follows her down into an entirely different dreamscape...

Don Johnson, in one of his first film roles, portrays Vic, and portrays him very well indeed; a cocky, quick-witted savage painfully aware of how cheap life is in this world. He is also aware of the cost and value of friendship in his landscape, and that sets in motion a shocking but quite logical conclusion. Blood is voiced by Tim McIntire (and portrayed by Tiger, the dog from THE BRADY BUNCH ) and ably shoulders this meditation on love and sacrifice. Also providing strong support are Jason Robards, Susanne Benton, Alvy Moore, Helene Winston and Hal Baylor as denizens of the underground world; smug, secure and untouched in their parochial society. (Mr. Ellison's tale is partly a reflection of the Kent State tragedy; his outrage at the Chamber of Commerce commending the National Guard for the killings. Mr. Ellison saw the disconnect in the safe callousness of the elders concerning the deaths of their youth during the campus unrest, and wrote the story as a parable about man's indifference to suffering.)

What makes the movie work so well (beyond Mr. Ellison's firm vision) is the imagination of Mr. Jones's direction. For instance, much of the action in the middle of the film takes place in an underground town modeled after Middle America , built to survive the surface cataclysm. Rather than try to create this with matte paintings or blue screen (showing a roof or mechanical walls surrounding the town), Mr. Jones simply shoots these sequences at night, in an actual small town - a town of eternal underground darkness lit with artificial light. It works ominously and wonderfully. (And proves you don't need a huge budget to create cinematic art.) Mr. Jones also makes use of some wonderful industrial plant locations and silos to affect the illusions of the tunnels leading from the surface to the world below.

Make no mistake: this is definitely an adult movie, with scenes of sexuality, profanity, violence and a nihilistic streak of humor. But for those with a taste for the offbeat and a respect for adult speculative fiction, this is a magnificent treasure, and I don't believe the proposed remake, while certainly being more expensive, will be one-tenth as rewarding

And should viewing this film lead the curious to seek out and explore the printed work of a modern master, I will be satisfied indeed.

To view the trailer for A BOY AND HIS DOG, click on the image below.



 

 

In my THOUGHT & REVERIES essay for the month, I mention using classic sources with a modern spin to revitalize some of the better films in our genre. One excellent example is the 2006 adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's “The Fall Of The House Of Usher” . Shortened simply to THE HOUSE OF USHER , adapted by Collin Chang and Boyd Hancock from Mr. Poe's short story, and directed stylishly by Hayley Cloake, the movie takes Poe's tale of familial madness and blood curses and creates a cold, deliberately paced work of twisted love and obsession.

After the death of his sister Maddy (Danielle McCarthy), Roderick Usher (Austin Nichols) invites his and Maddy's friend Jill Michaelson (Izabella Miko) to their ancestral estate to mourn and rekindle Roderick's previous relationship. But when Jill arrives she finds family secrets deep within the house's foundation, and a family legacy that threatens her sanity and her life.

One reason the film works so well is that the screenwriters have a solid respect for the original material, and even though there are changes wrought, the basic themes and arc of Poe's story remains untouched. This is a tale that explores the inner landscape of madness and distorted reality that Poe mapped so successfully and thoroughly. Many of the details are touch on modern psychosis and science, but the darkness around the often brightly-lit edges are classically Gothic in nature. I believe the original author would approve heartily.

Ms. Cloake shows a sure hand, and delivers a deliberately paced, eerie meditation. Make no mistake, this is not a jump-filled shock fest; some fans of the genre may find their attention tried by the glacial atmosphere and elegant structure, but those who appreciate the deeper aspects of fear will find much to admire in this hypnotic effort.

The cast is uniformly excellent, from Beth Grant's sinister housekeeper to Mr. Nichols's brooding and tortured Roderick. But from the beginning this is Ms. Miko's film, and she carries it assuredly and effortlessly. In addition to being one of the most beautiful actresses in cinema, her Jill is a complex, thoughtful character caught up on an emotional and physical upheaval, spiraling ever deeper into a landscape of menace and lunacy. The gender-switch of the narrator from the original story works extremely well, and Ms. Miko gives a bravura performance that centers the movie, engaging the viewer from its somber opening through to its truly nightmarish finale.

In short, I find this work mesmerizing, in the way the best of Poe was mesmerizing. It's a truly worthy effort from all involved; I hope you seek it out, and agree.

To view the trailer for THE HOUSE OF USHER , click on the image below.

 

 

Vacation is over. Christmas has passed, the New Year has begun, and it's time to return to school. And I can think of no better textbook to accompany you than Stephen King's epic analysis of the Horror Genre “Danse Macabre” .

First published in 1978, “Danse Macabre” is a non-fiction look at horror and popular culture from 1950 through 1980, going back to look at the roots of the genre (the ‘tarot cards' of horror, The Thing Without A Name, the Vampire, The Werewolf, and The Ghost, as exemplified by “Frankenstein” , “Dracula” , “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” , and “The Turn Of The Screw” , respectively) through radio programs, film and television, finishing with his personal recommendation on the landmark books of the genre, including Peter Straub's “Ghost Story” , Shirley Jackson's “The Haunting Of Hill House” , Ray Bradbury's “Something Wicked This Way Comes” , and the work of Harlan Ellison, notably his latest collection (at the time) “Strange Wine” . Along the way we examine horror as sociological, political and satirical construct, examine the mass cultural fears of the times that define the tales offered, and get some personal anecdotes and memories about arguably the finest Horror writer of our time.

Like Harlan Ellison mentioned above, Stephen King is a master at both the short and long-form essay, and his non-fiction (through his regular columns for “Entertainment Weekly” magazine and his memoir “On Writing” ) is becoming as recognized as his novels and stories for thought-provoking, high-caliber entertainment. It all began here, in what I consider one of the finest examinations on what Horror has been, is, and could and should be. It examines the bad and the good, the abysmal and the glorious, with a deep affection for even the poorest examples of what the Dark Fantastic can offer.

And although you may disagree with some of his opinions and conclusions (being a huge admirer of Mr. Serling and both THE TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT GALLERY , I find his criticisms of those efforts to be short-sighted – yet nevertheless well presented – and many will find his dismissal of KOLCHACK: THE NIGHT STALKER to border on blasphemous), his pedigree is unquestionable, and his work is never less than entertaining and insightful. More than anything else, this is a book to present to that friend or relation who is baffled by our choice of entertainment and literature, forever asking in bewilderment, “Why do you like that Horror stuff so much?” At the end of the book, Mr. King recommends a list of both films and books important to the genre, and even long-time fans of our field an find some material worth exploring that they might have previously overlooked. This is a must-have for the shelves of all serious practitioners and scholars of Horror and Dark Fantasy, and M. King is an extraordinary professor.

The latest volume released contains a fine essay Mr. King originally submitted to “Fangoria” magazine entitled “What's Scary?”, which updates some of his thoughts on the genre into the present day. Even if you own a previous edition of the book, this new essay is worth the price of new copy. Buy it for yourself, and give your old copy that that aforementioned friend. No doubt they'll thank you for it!

You have your new reading assignment! Class dismissed!

To order “Danse Macabre” , you can click on the book cover below. (Be certain to purchase the latest edition, the one printed in February 2010 with the desk-chair on the cover, so that it includes the “What's Scary?” essay.)




 

 

In 1972, Rod Serling returned to television with a new series entitled NIGHT GALLERY. Unlike his previous series THE TWILIGHT ZONE, which focused primarily on Light and Dark Fantasy (with occasional side-trips into Science Fiction and Horror), NIGHT GALLERY was meant to showcase Mr. Serling's favorite tales of Horror, with some adapted from classic stories (such as Lovecraft's "Pickman's Model" and "Cool Air") as well as original works. Mr. Serling wanted it to have the same thought-provoking material that made THE TWILIGHT ZONE echo so powerfully in the viewers' subconscious.

Sadly, because of network and studio interference, many of the NIGHT GALLERY episodes never reached the plateau of High Art that THE TWILIGHT ZONE had; some stories were watered down of their attended effect (see the episode "Clean Kills And Other Trophies" as it appears in Mr. Serling's written anthology "Night Gallery" to see how powerful the story was meant to be, compared with the final filmed version). Others that Mr. Serling wanted to do were rejected by the studio as 'too controversial' or 'too cerebral'.

Still, working as diligently as possible, Mr. Serling was able to affect some striking programs hat are remembered to this day as ranking with some of his best work. One such tale was the NIGHT GALLERY Christmas episode "The Messiah On Mott Street". Starring Edawrd G. Robinson and Yaphet Kotto, this tale of redemption coming to the tenement slums showcased Mr. Serling's humanity as well as his love of the Winter Season (and, not incidentally, proved that he too felt that the traditional time of year for ghostly tales was Christmas time.

Through the auspices of Hulu, I am pleased to present the uncut version of this classic tale (along with the bonus episode "The Painted Mirror"). And if you are intrigued enough by the filmed version to want to seek out the prose version of the story (in Mr. Serling's anthology "Night Gallery 2"), I believe that his writing in the short story version is even more admirable; I've provide a link to purchase those volumes.

Thank you, Mr. Serling, and Season's Greetings!









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