Monday, December 20, 2010

Best of 2010

I'm not going to include the generally required "Worst of" list here because I haven't seen, read, or listened to enough stuff to feel like I reliably know what ate shit the hardest. I will include a couple disappointments, however, things I was really looking forward to that let me down.

Also -- for the same reason -- calling this a "Best of" list is probably somewhat deceiving. I missed a LOT of stuff this year. These are simply the things that stuck out in my mind the most.

Best Movie: Shutter Island

Yeah, I'm surprised by this one too. Looking back at Wikipedia's list of films released in 2010, it's impossible not to be struck by how weak this year really was for movie fans. Granted, I missed the Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop and I haven't seen The Fighter or True Grit yet, but even if those are as brilliant as everyone has been saying they are, 2010 still sucked the big one for movies.

Objectively speaking, Inception and The Social Network are probably the better movies. But if I'm going to be 100 percent honest I have to say Shutter Island is probably the film I had the most fun with this year. It's minor Scorsese, to be sure, and deeply flawed. But I loved the energy and Scorsese's complete committment to the movie's pulp, overwrought tone and story. You can just feel the fun everyone was having making this. Mark Ruffalo's understated performance manages to anchor an otherwise wildly histrionic experience, and Michelle Williams' gooseflesh-inducing final scene still sticks with me.

Honorable Mentions: The Social Network, Un Prophet, Inception, 127 Hours

Biggest Disappointment: Black Swan

I was really looking forward to this one. The trailer made it seem like it was going to be Darren Aronofsky at his Pi/Requiem For A Dream mind-exploding best. Instead it's merely a decent, mostly watchable thriller with a half-baked script that borrows liberally from much better fare like Repulsion and a central performance (by Natalie Portman) that is one of the most irritating things I've seen onscreen since Jar-Jar Binks.

Best TV: The Walking Dead

The above scene encapsulates everything I love about AMC's new Frank Darabont-produced zombie saga. After too many years of watching my beloved zombies reduced to a joke and a silly punchline in movies and books, finally we get something that -- like Romero's original Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead -- actually takes the idea seriously. Think about it: a zombie apocalypse is about the most horrifying concept anyone can think of. To survive you're not just forced to shoot shambling, flesh-eating ghouls ... you'd have to put a bullet in the brains of your friends, your brothers and sisters, your husbands and wives, maybe even your children.

Zombies aren't funny. Zombies are tragic.

The Walking Dead does for zombies what Battlestar Galactica did for space operas. The show has moments that are truly thrilling and genuinely scary, but the overall tone is one of contemplative sadness. That phrase may not sell the show to the more ADD-prone amongst us, but for a zombie purist like myself it came as a truly welcome breath of fresh air.

Honorable Mention: Sons of Anarchy Season 3

Best Book: The Passage by Justin Cronin

I already wrote a pretty long review of this one, so I won't say too much about it here. Suffice it to say that this book works in much the same way as The Walking Dead. It takes an over-familiar horror concept -- in this case a vampire apocalypse -- and elevates it to something that approaches high art. This book pretty much single-handedly renewed my faith in the possibilities for horror fiction.

And it's the first in a trilogy! I literally cannot wait for the second installment.

Honorable Mention: Full Dark No Stars by Stephen King (you can also read my review of this one)

Biggest Disappointment: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

The last in Larsson's immensely popular Millenium trilogy was a decent enough book, but ultimately it was kind of anticlimactic after the superlative The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. Lisbeth Salander -- one of the most badass heroines in the history of modern fiction -- spends most her time in a hospital bed or a courtroom. As much as I enjoyed the book, overall I'd have to say it was a big letdown. This is probably because it was not actually meant to be the end of the trilogy, but became so after Larsson's untimely death. Here's to imagining what could have been...

Best Album: High Violet by The National

This came out of nowhere for me. I read a little blurb about these guys in Rolling Stone that said they were influenced by Nick Cave, so I downloaded it from iTunes figuring it'd be something I'd listen to once and forget about. Instead, it hasn't left my earphones for more than two weeks at a time. The album is a simple, gorgeous, and melancholy wonder. I listened to it nonstop while reading The Passage, and I think the pairing improved both the album and the book for me. The second track, "Sorrow," can still bring a tear to my eye if I'm in the right (or wrong) mood.

If you haven't taken the time to listen to it yet, do yourself a favor and give it a spin. If it doesn't pluck at your heart strings, you're probably either a serial killer, a politician, or you work on Wall Street.

Honorable Mention: Grinderman II by Grinderman

Best Home Video Discovery: (tie) Moon (2009) and The Wire (2002-2008)

All I'm going to say is that Moon might be the best movie I've seen in ten years and The Wire is the best television show, ever. You might disagree. But you'd be wrong.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book Review: "Full Dark, No Stars" by Stephen King (2010)

Warning: some spoilers below

As much as I love, love, LOVE Stephen King, I'll be the first to admit that, even at his very best, he can be kind of a clumsy writer. Much as King himself described the late, great Robert E. Howard (of the original "Conan the Barbarian" stories), King tends to wield his considerable talent as bludgeon rather than a scalpel.

But, while he will never be a perfect writer, he is -- at his best -- a near perfect storyteller.

Full Dark, No Stars is a case in point.

The problem with Big Steve -- can I call you Big Steve? Thanks -- is that, as soon as he turned into a Bestsellasaurus Rex (his phrase), he appeared to believe that he really didn't need an editor anymore. I've always bristled at the oft-stated cliché that Steve could publish his laundry list if he wanted. But, as much as I hate to admit it, it's true. And, as time went on, the books just got longer...and longer...and longer...

Last year's Under the Dome was heralded by many as a return to form. It garnered (ridiculous) comparisons to The Stand. I disagree. It was good, but it wasn't great. The closest Steve has gotten to greatness in recent years was 2002's From a Buick 8, which -- aside from an absolutely godawful final chapter that I have since tried my best to block from my memory -- was taut, tight, original, and very scary. It was also the shortest book he had published in a long, long time.

Even though he has become so known for his massive, phonebook-sized tomes, with the exception of The Stand(1978), It (1986) and maybe Bag of Bones (1998) , most of them grow more exasperating than exhilarating as they ramble on (two of them -- 1987's The Tommyknockers and 1994's Insomnia -- are damn near unreadable).

This is what makes Full Dark, No Stars the first true King classic in probably about 15 years. It's a collection of novellas, much like the masterful Different Seasons (1982) and the very-good-if-not-quite-masterful Four Past Midnight (1990). This is the length where King is at his best. Most of my favorite King stories -- The Body, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, Secret Window, Secret Garden -- appeared in one of those two books. My other favorite King story, The Mist, is another novella first published in Kirby McCauley's Dark Forces anthology (1981) and reprinted in King's own Skeleton Crew (1985).

Add to that list at least two of the stories in the new collection. This is King at his leanest, meanest, darkest, Bachman best.

The first, longest, and best story in Full Dark, No Stars is 1922. Told in the first person in the form of a written confession by Nebraska Farmer Wilfred James, 1922 is a black-as-pitch examination of how apparent good fortune can lead to catastrophe. Wilfred's wife, Arletta, comes into an inheritance of 100 acres from her dead father. Arletta wants to sell the land and move to Omaha to open a dress shop. Wilfred wants to add the land to his own 80 acres. An immovable force meets and unstoppable object. Eventually (no spoiler here, this is revealed on the first page), Wilfred convinces their fourteen-year-old son, Hank, to help him murder Arletta and dump her body into an old well.

This being a Stephen King story, things go disastrously awry. The punishment meeted out to Wilfred, Hank, and Hank's innocent girlfriend Shannon is as tragic as it is absolutely horrifying. Supernatural elements aside, it's also all strangely plausible, rooted in the truth of 1920s Midwestern farm life.. King is a master at finding horror in everyday objects and situations, and in 1922 such things as a cracked drain pipe and a lady's hatbox gain almost totemic significance.

And, of course, there are the rats. I've never really had a fear of rats before, but I do now.

Steve follows this with Big Driver, a 70s-style rape-revenge fantasy that thankfully stays away from the inherent exploitation elements (Steve depicts the assault itself in just a couple pages, wisely getting in and getting out as quickly as possible) and instead focuses on the trauma and the aftermath. The lead character, Tess, is a semi-successful mystery novelist assaulted and left for dead on her way home from a lecture. Instead of reporting her attack she instead decides to exact her own justice. Steve makes a lot of the disconnect between Tess's fictional, light-hearted murder mysteries and the true horror of what she has experienced.

The story rings some false notes (there are a couple twists and turns that had me shaking my head) and wraps up altogether too neatly, but King paints a portrait of trauma that is both harrowing and heartbreaking, and you'd have to have a heart of stone not to cheer Tess on when her simmering rage inevitably turns to murder.

Fair Extension, the third and shortest story, is the only one that sort of feels like fluff. Streeter is a miserable man in his early 50s dying of cancer. He meets a stranger by the side of the road who may be the Devil himself. Ole' Scratch offers Streeter a deal: he'll give Streeter a "life extension" if he agrees to fork over 15 percent of his income (it seems Satan has lost interest in souls and is instead looking for Caribbean tax shelters). The catch is that Streeter has to pick someone to receive all his bad luck. Streeter picks his best friend from childhood, Tom Goodhough, a successful businessman with a perfect family whom Streeter has secretly hated for decades.

The story is a breezy and entertaining black comedy, but there's very little substance to it. We get to see Streeter's life improve as Tom's falls apart in Biblical ways. That's about it. What I did like, however, is how Steve essentially turns the old Faustian morality tale on its head. We keep waiting for Streeter to get his comeuppance. It doesn't happen.

The book ends with A Good Marriage, which is Steve's meditation on Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, and how his wife claimed to know nothing of his murderous ways. Probably the less said about this one the better. Again, Steve very astutely stays away from most of the seamy details of the killings and instead focuses on the sheer horror of what it would be like to find out that the sweet, attentive husband you have shared a bed with for more than a quarter-century might actually be a psychopath. The story unfolds in some nice, unexpected ways, and leads to a conclusion that is -- while predictable -- ultimately satisfying. In many ways, it's the quietest of the four stories. It's also probably the most chilling.

I have no illusions that Full Dark, No Stars is going to be the start of a Stephen King renaissance. I'm sure his next book will likely be another bloated, overplotted brick. I'll read it anyway, and I'm sure I'll (mostly) like it. But until then, I'm thankful to have a little taste of the old, transcendent King that I have yearned for for so long.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A few thoughts on the response to "SEND"

SEND (2010) from Trifecta+ Entertainment on Vimeo.

I sort of feel like trying to write a really good story is a bit like conducting surgery while blindfolded. You hack away at the thing, hoping you don't hit an artery and kill it. You try to find the infected appendix or whatever it is you're looking for by touch alone and take it out.

And sometimes your hand slips and you stick your scalpel into a bundle of raw nerves.

That seems to be what's happened with "SEND."

I went to see a play back in August -- "Trust," by Stephen Dietz -- and I was floored by this one scene. One character confronts another about his infidelity. Glasses are thrown. Accusations are hurled. And my jaw was on the floor.

The actress in that scene was Amelia Ampuero, and I immediately had the thought that I wanted to do a movie with her where I would just put the camera on her face and let her do her thing. It seemed sort of crazy, like something you think about and right away realize won't work at all.

But then -- and this is just the way my brain works, folks -- I suddenly had this image of her covered in blood and talking about eating a rat. To steal my favorite metaphor from Stephen King, my Muse took a big old crap on the top of my head and the idea was there, whole and pretty much fully formed.

That's it. I initially thought this would just be a little web video, something I could post quickly while we were finishing up some of our larger projects. I figured it would be, at most, ten minutes long. I hammered out a draft that came out to about thirteen pages, sent it to a few friends for feedback, and contacted Amelia to see if she was interested.

Once Amelia agreed to do it, I incorporated some of the notes I had gotten from friends and started fleshing out the script. It began to bloat over the coarse of a few drafts, ending up at about twenty pages. A little long for a web video, but whatever. It would still be super easy to shoot, which was what I was looking for at that moment. Some people would stick with it, I figured, and some wouldn't.

As far as the content itself, as I saw the story taking shape I realized this had the potential to be a really striking and unsettling little film if we did it right. I liked that. I thought the movie would fuck with people. That's good. I like to fuck with people.

The shoot went well. Amelia was incredible, as I knew she would be. Mary's makeup was stunning. I started thinking that maybe this was a bit more of a "real" film than I had initially figured it would be.

I sort of knew I had a tiger by the tail when I started editing it last Monday. Amelia's performance was absolutely riveting. I found myself just sitting and watching it rather than working on it.

But I still had no idea.

After I posted it on Friday, I watched as the number of views climbed up to 100...then 300...then suddenly 1,500...3,600...finally over 6,000. Over 80 people reposted it on Facebook. An untold number sent the link to their friends via email. It wasn't exactly viral, but it was on its way.

Then the emails started rolling in. Amongst all the "way to go"s and "that was awesome"s that you expect to get from your friends, I started getting email after email from people I didn't know. Most of them seemed to be from women, many of them mothers. They all told me the movie made them cry. One woman told me that, immediately after watching it, she went and hugged her kids and then called her husband while he was at work to tell him she loved him. Yet another told me the movie was making her "rethink the way I'm living my life."

To which my response was "...uh...what?"

And then I got this email this morning:

"hi. you dont know me. a friend sent me a link to your movie Send and I just felt like i had to write to you to express my gratitude. I felt you made this movie about me. a year ago i split up with my husband. It has been a nasty divorce and i have at times even contemplated suicide, only not doing it because of my kids. but then I saw your movie and it made me realize what is important, and i cannot thank you enough. thank you thank you thank you"

(I wrote back and asked the sender -- who will remain anonymous -- if I could reprint that here. She said yes.)

I just don't know what to say to that.

I don't want to overstate this. I know we didn't cure cancer or anything. We made a movie. I guess all I can say is that I'm absolutely floored, humbled, and completely overwhelmed by the response. As a writer and filmmaker I've never experienced anything remotely like it before.

One thing I absolutely must say, though, is that I refuse to take credit. Sure, I think I wrote a pretty good script. But I had help from friends, who were not shy about telling me what worked and what didn't.

Really, this movie only exists because of Amelia. It was watching her on stage that inspired me to write it, and it was her performance in the film that, I believe, has led to the response that it has had.

And, of course, there's my beloved Trifecta team. There's Mary's makeup. You truly have to see it to believe it. There were Bust's costumes and guns, which is what gives that last scene the boxer's punch that it has. And -- even though I sort of shot this one myself -- there was Corey's invaluable advice and help with the lighting.

Beyond that, I don't really have anything else to say. I really, honestly had no idea. Sometimes you just stick your blade into a bundle of nerves, that's all.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Two new albums by Grinderman and Dead Confederate

Grinderman - "Grinderman II"

When Nick Cave stepped away from his piano and picked up a guitar in 2005 and started writing the messy, blues-punk songs that eventually coalesced into his 2007 side project Grinderman, it was clear that the dour Australian was looking to break from the bleak confines of The Bad Seeds and have himself a little fun. Grinderman was a welcome departure, even for die hard Seeds fans like myself, completely tossing aside the Gothic melancholia of his regular band (at least in its more recent outings) and harkening back to his snarling days with seminal Aussie punk band The Birthday Party in the early 1980s. With the album's first single, the viciously hilarious "No Pussy Blues," Cave showed the world that he could still cut loose and have a laugh.

Now he's back with Grinderman II. Where Grinderman was a fun but ultimately pretty depthless diversion, the new album is probably Cave's best and most vital new music since the Bad Seeds Nocturama in 2003. At the very least, it's a marked improvement over both the first Grinderman album and the Bad Seeds' somewhat lackluster Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008).

Announcing itself with a roar from the very first track, the absurdly titled "Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man," Cave and his crew have managed to craft an album that has all the gnarled, messy punk-rock swirl of their first effort along with the brooding Apocalyptic menace of The Bad Seeds at their best. Whereas Dig had a few good songs sprinkled amongst a lot of filler and Grinderman sort of ran out of steam about three quarters of the way through, Grinderman II stays taut and focused until the very last note. This is music from the id. There's nary a misstep here.

And if you haven't seen it yet, you must check out the completely unhinged video for the album's first single, "Heathen Child" (NSFW). WTF?

Grinderman - "Heathen Child"
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Dead Confederate - "Sugar"

Dead Confederate are a really solid band from Athens, Georgia, who have never quite lived up to the promise of their first self-titled E.P. in 2008. That collection of five songs -- from the gloomy swagger of their first single "The Rat" to the bludgeoning stomp of the E.P.'s closing track "Shadow the Walls -- just came out of nowhere and crushed me. I don't think it left my earphones for about five months.

Their first full length album, Wrecking Ball came out at the end of that year, and had some real highs and lows. They re-recorded "The Rat" and somehow managed to sap the song of its energy, and other tracks like "Yer Circus" and "Heavy Petting" felt like half-baked filler. But they nailed it with "It Was A Rose," "Goner," and "Start Me Laughing." They were sort of dismissed by critics as Southern neo-grunge, but really at their best they were loud alt-country with a bite, displaying aural flourishes drawn from influences as disparate as Skynyrd and Floyd, Nirvana and Joy Division.

Their just-released second album, Sugar, is an odd departure. Noticeably absent are the alt-country touches that defined their sound early on. This record is much more rooted in late 80s/early 90s post-punk -- undoubtably influenced in no small part by their association with J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., with whom they toured last year and who makes a guest appearance on the album's first single, "Giving it All Away."

It took me about three listens to decide that this is actually a much stronger album than Wrecking Ball, which for all its assets can be a singularly frustrating experience to listen to all the way through. Where Wrecking Ball featured some real standout tracks but didn't cohere as an album, Sugar doesn't feature any one song that will jump out at you but somehow comes together magnificently as an entire work.

There's something weirdly fractured and unpleasant about this album ... and I mean that as a compliment. The songs drone and crash without any real obvious sense of purpose, but then somehow it all just comes together in the end. There's very little of what you could call a hook anywhere to be found, and yet the album as a whole has a strange momentum and builds a dark, almost schizophrenic mood that, by the end, seeps into your pores. It's what Sonic Youth and Fugazi do at their best.

Unfortunately, the one glaring weak spot on the album is the single. The song just kind of jangles along and then ends without any real impact. The only thing moderately memorable is Mascis's buzz-saw guitar solo. If it hadn't been for that, I would have said they should have just that one on the cutting room floor.

Luckily they've released another video for a much better song, "Run From the Gun." Check it out.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Is it possible to fall in love with a blogger I've never met before?


Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Bosh

I might be a little late to this party, but this blog is funniest goddamn thing I've run across in a very, very long time. Allie is a multi-talented wunderkind, able to write hilariously disturbing and oddly touching stories and wield MS Paint like it's a weapon.

She's like Don Hertzfeldt, but with more heart.

And she's hot.

I don't even remember how I stumbled across it, but I'm now thoroughly addicted. I want to blame this on the stomach flu that's kept me in bed most of the day, but I've literally gotten nothing done today beyond reading and rereading her posts, perusing the photos on her Facebook page, and secretly plotting how I'm going to move up to Montana and somehow break up her and her boyfriend (what's his name? Duncan? Whatever).

Yes, I am now officially an Internet stalker.

So in the interest of regaining a small piece of my dignity, I'm going to try to pretend that this post isn't merely a desperate ploy for Allie's attention and mention a few of the other blogs and websites that get me through my day.

Fuck You, Penguin

Sadly, I think this one might be dead. There haven't been any posts since November of last year.

But who doesn't want to yell at pandas and tell them they're stupid? I know I do.

If you haven't seen it, it's worth going through the archives.


This one is alternatingly hilarious, disturbing, and deeply depressing. Sometimes while reading it I'll hurt myself laughing and sometimes I'll tremble in fear and weep for the future of humanity. Usually when I'm done I feel really horrible about myself and the rest of my species.

But it's like crack. I just can't seem to quit.

And speaking of crack...


Probably my most visited site on the Internet (second to Wikipedia, of course). Funny, weird, and surprisingly informative. I enjoy the videos (particularly the ones by Michael Swain) and the web comics, but it's the lists that keep me coming back over and over again.

Some of my favorites:

5 Popular Zombie Survival Tactics (That Will Get You Killed)
The 7 Most Horrifying Museums on Earth
The 17 Most Unintentionally Hilarious Propaganda Posters

Most of these websites can't really be defended as anything other than a waste of time, but I've found that Cracked is actually great for research and has inspired more than a few story ideas. So suck it.

The Daily Beast

Okay, so maybe now I'm feeling a little defensive about my Internet habits. But I do go to this one regularly for my politics and news fix. It's not as up-to-the-minute as The Huffington Post or Politico, but that only gives it the added bonus of having articles that are actually well-written and contextualized.

Playground of Doom

Hey, I know this guy!

Doesn't matter. I still genuinely get excited every time Dusty posts a new blog. It's like getting a little snark-filled Christmas present in my Facebook inbox.

It doesn't hurt that Dusty and I have similar sensibilities (Inception aside). But I love how he approaches reviews of things as diverse as Machete, Five Easy Pieces, and The Hand with the same snap wit and lack of pretension (a lesson I should probably take for myself), and that he's not afraid to turn the snark on himself.

And -- sorry Dusty -- he's also the ultimate contrarian. He literally does not give a shit what you think. Awesome.

For some other cool blogs written by people I know, check out Cinewise by Gurur Sarbanoglu; A Modern Girl's Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse by Mandy Connor, Dana Horgan, and Bridget Tyler; and The New Jonny Transit Blog by Jon Curtis.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Cee-Lo's "F*ck You" and the joy of a good novelty song

Cee Lo Green "Fuck You"
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I'm not gonna lie. Cee-Lo's "Fuck You" might be my favorite song ever.

It seems to be a lot of people's favorite song ever actually. Last I heard it had hit something like two million views on YouTube within a week of it's release.

This, to me, is the very definition of the perfect novelty song.

1) It's catchy. Oh, is it ever catchy.

2) It's funny.

3) It's kind of naughty in a "I can't believe he did that" sort of way.

4) It's actually a pretty good song.

So in honor of this monumentally awesome track, here's my list of my top 5 novelty songs of all time.

And no, there won't be any Weird Al Yankovic on this list.

Ben Folds - "Bitches Ain't Shit"

The effete white dude doing the acoustic cover of the hardcore rap song has been a novelty-song cliché since about the mid 1990s, when it seemed like everyone suddenly discovered irony.

I was first introduced to this phenomena as a college radio DJ with Dynamite Hack's cover of Eazy-E's "Boyz N The Hood", which is pretty funny, but Ben Folds actually comes close to transcending the whole idea of the novelty song with this track. The mournful piano actually adds a certain melancholy weight to the rank misogyny in the lyrics. It's funny and ironic, sure, but kind of creepy too.

Anthrax and Public Enemy - "Bring The Noise"

Hard as it is to believe now, once upon a time the idea of a heavy metal band and a rap group getting together to record a song was nearly inconceivable, sort of like Jews for Jesus or Mormons for Jack Daniels and Strippers.

Now, in the post Limp Bizkit wreckage of our sad little lives, whatever novelty was to be had in the concept is long gone. But I still love this song. I don't care what you say.

See also Anthrax's first foray into rap with "I'm the Man".

William Shatner - "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"

The amazing thing was that, at the time, this wasn't meant to be funny. People thought that this would really turn Shatner into some sort of art poet pop star or something.

Luckily, Shatner figured it out later and has crafted a nice little second career making fun of himself on Priceline commercials and Conan O'Brien.

And speaking of Star Trek...

Leonard Nimoy - "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins"

The less said about this the better.

Moving on.

Vincent Laguardia Gambini - "Take Your Love and Shove It"

This is my personal favorite on this list. Joe Pesci playing his character from My Cousin Vinnie embarking on a second career as a potty-mouthed lounge singer. What more do you need?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Death and Rock in Seattle: "The Gits" (2005) and "Kurt & Courtney" (1998)

Seattle was the center of the music universe in the early 1990s. The scene led to maybe the most profound paradigm shift in mainstream rock and roll since the British invasion of the 1960s. Having the words "Seattle band" come before your name could almost guarantee you a record deal. Bands from the scene (most famously Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, but also groups like TAD, Screaming Trees, and the Melvins) repurposed the fury of punk and combined it with the groove of heavy metal to create something new and seemingly vital and, for a short time at least, filling a much-needed void. The musicians were snarly girls with dreadlocks and nose rings and angry guys with stringy hair and goatees. They wore flannel, Converses and torn T-shirts, and they uniformly rejected the lip-gloss-and-leather-pants excess of 1980s cock rock. Bands like Poison and Warrant and Nelson and Winger spasmodically went the way of the Dodo. Earnestness and "authenticity" were fashionable again.

And then it all fell apart.

Two violent events, occurring within about a year of each other, brought about the near immediate death of the scene. The first was the brutal rape and murder of Mia Zapata, lead singer of The Gits, in 1993. The second was the suicide by shotgun of Kurt Cobain, the closest Generation X had to a genuine John Lennon figure.

A pair of critically acclaimed documentaries chronicle these two events. Nick Broomfield's Kurt & Courtney came out in 1998, when the wounds were still pretty raw. Kerri O'Kane's The Gits appeared in 2005, long after the dust had settled.

The Gits is a pretty standard rockumentary tribute to Zapata, combining archival concert footage, photos, and talking heads spouting platitudes about how influential the band was and how amazing a person and singer she was. It's too bad the movie isn't more adventurous, because the subject matter is fascinating. The Gits were one of Seattle's best undiscovered gems, right on the verge of cracking the mainstream, when Zapata was killed. They were a pretty straight-forward hardcore punk band and weren't really part of the adjacent (and largely rival) grunge scene. Zapata's skill as a singer was truly astonishing. She was sort of a snarlier and bluesier Patti Smith, and her powerhouse talent and her generous support of the bands that came in her wake helped give birth to the Riot Grrrl movement (which included celebrated girl punk bands like L7, Bikini Kill, and the direct Gits-disciples 7 Year Bitch).

The first half of the documentary follows the band's rise, from their early days at Antioch College in Ohio to their dominance of Seattle's punk scene. Her former band members expound on Zapata's brilliance, and the musicians from the other scene bands like 7 Year Bitch and DC Beggars talk at length about her influence. It's all fairly banal stuff, with a few amusing anecdotes thrown in (the most charming moment is a clever montage of her various friends lovingly impersonating her gravelly voice). But it's the concert footage that shows the truth of her abilities. I'm sorry, but the woman could sing.

The story takes it's unfortunate turn at Zapata's murder. Zapata was walking home from a bar after spending the night hanging out with members of 7 Year Bitch when she was accosted, beaten, raped, and strangled. The police searched for nearly a decade for the killer, operating on the assumption that it had to have been somebody she knew. Men from all over the punk scene were interrogated, and the women walked around in fear, not knowing if the killer moved amongst them. The camaraderie of the scene was shattered, and -- as one interviewee said -- almost all the bands broke up within a year of her death. The magic, as they say, was gone.

I wanted O'Kane to really dig into the psychology of that dark time, but -- as is the case in the first half of the film -- she's content to just skip over the surface. The only real emotion we see is from Zapata's father (who seems like the best and most loving dad a hardcore punk girl from Kentucky could ask for) and from 7 Year Bitch singer Selene Vigil, who -- years after the tragedy -- seems still shaken by the death of her friend and mentor. But O'Kane just keeps pumping out the platitudes about how awesome Zapata was, and after awhile you're left with the sense that she must have been the Mother Teresa of Seattle's punk scene. No one has a single unkind or complicating thing to say ab out her. I'm sure she was as lovely a person as everyone says she was, but O'Kane never really finds a way to humanize her. She leaves her as a martyr and an idol, not a person.

There's a happy ending, of sorts, when the police finally make an arrest using DNA evidence 10 years after her murder, but the impact of that final turn is muted by the fact that O'Kane never really brings home the pain of her loss.

Still, with all its flaws, The Gits is worth a watch if you have even a passing interest in the subject. As I said, the concert footage alone is worth it.

Nick Broomfield's Kurt & Courtney is the much more stylish film. Broomfield has a much stronger sense of cinematic language, and he largely eschews the conventions of the talking-head documentary. He moves the camera, for one thing, and rather than just showing us the interviews he gives us all the awkwardness of the first meetings and introductions (my favorite is Kurt Cobain's old high school teacher, who yells at the filmmakers as if they're tardy students before finally settling down and agreeing to the interview). This gives the film a lived in, organic feel and adds to the sense of verisimilitude ... which is important considering that Broomfield's film is less a tribute and more a piece of conspiracy-theory agitprop.

"I didn't have an angle on the story," Broomfield says in what has to be one of the most stupendously disingenuous statements in the history of documentary filmmaking. "I was just trying to find my way through it." Yeah. Right. I call bullshit on that one.

Broomfield is an excellent craftsman and he knows how to structure a narrative. In Kurt * Courtney he tells three stories simultaneously: that of Kurt Cobain's rise and fall, that of the Courtney Love's alleged involvement in his death, and that of himself -- the poor camera-wielding David versus the Goliath that is Courtney Love and the Hollywood media machine -- battling to get his film made.

Broomfield's main thesis (although he denies it) is that Courtney Love had Kurt Cobain killed to protect her financial and professional interests. To prove his point, he travels the country (okay, the West Coast) and interviews a bunch of crackpots and junkies, each of whom has his or her own story to tell. The most fascinating are Cobain's clearly drugged-out best friend (who may have been in on the plot, Broomfield slyly suggests), Courtney Love's estranged father (who is convinced she had him killed and is apparently making as much money as he can off the accusations), and -- of course -- Eldon Hoke, otherwise known as "El Duce." Hoke was the lead singer of the notorious "rape rock" band The Mentors (they made GWAR look like a Disney attraction), and he claimed that Love offered him $50,000 to kill Cobain. He lived a squalid, hillbilly existence out in Riverside, CA, and at the time of his interview he looked to be about 39 going on 60. It's not hard to believe this guy could have killed someone, even if his story stinks like a rotting fish in the noon sun. At one point Broomfield asks Hoke how Love had suggested he commit the deed. "Blow his fucking head off!" Hoke shouts, clearly giddy at the idea. "That's the way it's done!"

Interestingly, Hoke was struck and killed by a train just a few days after his interview, which of course threw a whole mess of gasoline on the already raging conspiracy-theory fire.

To be fair to Broomfield, he doesn't really try to convince us that these people are anything but crackpots and junkies, and he gets a lot of narrative mileage out of the growing uncertainty surrounding his quest. "I no longer knew whether anything anyone was telling me was true," he says at one point, and you can just about hear the thunderclap going off on the soundtrack. The only person who seems unquestionably honest is Cobain's beloved aunt Mary, an ever-smiling and hyper religious woman who seems so homespun and saintly as to be almost creepy. I wondered if maybe she had wandered in from a forgotten episode of Twin Peaks.

Broomfield is cut from the same cinematic cloth as fellow agitprop documentarians Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, and he knows the benefit of having a good villain. When Broomfield finally confronts Love at a swanky ACLU dinner in Los Angeles, it's impossible not to think of Moore raging at GM chairman Roger Smith at the end of Roger & Me. Like most of Moore's movies, this film is shamelessly manipulative, embarrassingly narcissistic ... and pretty damn effective. By never outright stating that he thinks Love killed Cobain and by allowing himself to (on camera, at least) question the veracity of the evidence like a true journalist, he manages to create a pretty convincing argument that, at the very least, the question itself isn't completely insane. He uncovers enough genuinely weird stuff to make one wonder.

And, whether or not she actually had Cobain killed, Love is unquestionably the villain of this movie. Broomfield's idea seems to be that, at the very least, she probably drove him to suicide (another former lover of hers pretty much says as much). No one is going to walk away from this movie mistaking her for a nice person.

Whether or not you believe the conspiracy theories, Broomfield's documentary is pretty interesting and, in its way, genuinely thought provoking. But, please, take it with a grain of salt.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009)

There's been a lot of hype about the upcoming American adaptation of Swedish author Stieg Larsson's international bestseller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The film is based on a bonafide literary phenomenon, set in an exotic location (Sweden), and sports an A-list director (David Fincher), a solid movie star (Daniel Craig), and -- now -- a mostly unknown actress (Rooney Mara) thrust into a virtuoso role that has become a feminist icon worldwide.

So -- as all the book's fans go apeshit, both pro and con, about what Fincher may or may not do with this material -- it's easy to forget that these movies have already been made. And been made pretty damn well, at that. The Swedish movie version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is already a major smash worldwide (with over $100 million in box office) and has received a ton of critical acclaim.

The sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire has just been released in the U.S. and the final, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest will come out in the fall.

I liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo well enough, but nowhere near as much as I liked the book. The filmmakers did about as good a job as they could have condensing the massive story into a single film. It was gorgeously shot, well acted, and solidly directed. But it kept me at arm's length in a way that the novel didn't. Somehow I didn't quite connect to the characters the way I wanted to. The whole thing fell just a little bit flat to me.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is an even more ungainly book to try to turn into a film. It has a lot more action, sure, but it's all wrapped up in an absurdly convoluted plot with what seems to be an entire platoon of brand new characters to wrap your head around. Where Tattoo was at heart sort of a standard locked-room mystery, Fire spans all of Sweden and features about eight different storylines all bashing into each other like a massive game of bumper cars.

Don't get me wrong; I absolutely love the book for all its flaws. But I wasn't entirely clear how exactly it could make the jump to the big screen. I was pretty nervous about how it would work.

So it's with a sigh of relief that I can report that not only is Fire a much stronger film than its predecessor, but it's actually an improvement in many ways over the original novel.

The key to the success of both the novels and the films are the two leads: Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a crusading journalist and ladies' man (and obviously an idealized version of Larsson himself), and Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a brooding anarcho-punk computer hacker with the iron will of a Roman Centurian and the social skills of a bar napkin. Tattoo was about introducting these two opposites so that they could solve a twisted decades-old murder mystery and, eventually, fall into bed together. They make one of of the most compelling crime-fighting duos since Holmes and Watson, Fraser and Diefenbaker, and Simon and Simon.

Where Tattoo was about bringing Blomkvist and Salander together, Fire is about keeping them apart. Salander's on the run after falsely being accused of murder, and Blomkvist must desperately try to clear her name. Meanwhile, there's a bunch of stuff about sex trafficking, Russian double agents, a lecherous lawyer with a secret, a Swedish biker gang, cops being led down the wrong path, and -- at the center of everything -- a murderous blond giant who can't feel pain and who beats people to death with his bare hands.

Rapace is far prettier and much more voluptuous than Salander is described in the books, and in Tattoo that threw me a bit. Lisbeth is described at being so slight that she's often mistaken for a boy. Seeing the statuesque Rapace fill the role felt a bit like watching Angelina Jolie try to play Hermione or something. That took some getting used to.

Nyqvist looks more the role, but the first time around he just sort of disappeared for me. His Blomkvist in the first movie felt a bit like a sketch rather than a fully developed character, and the heat and eventual deep bond that develops between him and Salander just never quite rang true for me the way it did in the book. And without that bond, there's not much else to hang your hat on.

Fire features a different screenwriter and director (Jonas Frykberg and Daniel Alfredson), and I think they deserve credit for digging deeper and finding that heat that lives at the heart of these stories, which is even more impressive considering that in this film Blomkvist and Salander share a total of about two minutes of screen time together. Nyqvist finally seems to settle into the role, finding the complexities that exist in the books and pushing past Blomkvist's too-cool exterior to the troubled firebrand underneath. He captures both Blomkvist's unyielding sense of integrity as well as his at times alarming and even dangerous well of arrogance.

Rapace is the real revelation, however. She did a fine job in Tattoo, but I had a hard time getting past her beauty, and her makeup and wardrobe felt like a glamour photographer's interpretation of what an anarcho-punk computer hacker should look like. She's just as beautiful in Fire, but Alfredson wisely dresses her down for much of the movie, giving her a stringy mop of hair rather than the hipster coif from the first film, keeping the Goth makeup to a minimum, and generally clothing her in baggy T-shirts and sweatpants. This gives Rapace room to scratch past the surface of the character, cracking through Salander's snarling exterior and showing the aching vulnerability and the deep loneliness that lurks beneath. For the first time, I felt like I was actually watching the Lisbeth I had fallen in love with in the books.

And I have to say I was very pleased with the casting of German actor Mikael Spreitz as Niederman, the aforementioned murderous blond giant who it turns out is much more deeply connected to Salander than anyone could imagine (dah dah DUM!). Nierderman is an absolutely terrifying character in the book, but he could have easily become a cartoon in the film. Spreitz manages to capture not only Niederman's brute physicality, but his viciousness, his intelligence, and his oddly childlike vacantness as well, and all with a bare minimum of dialogue to work with. He turns in a truly towering (pun definitely intended) performance.

But about that lumbering plot?

Larsson wasn't really a master plotter. In Fire in particular, he relied way too heavily on coincidence and narrative convenience. Frykberg and Alfredson do a really stunning job of streamlining his unwieldy text and actually make some very noticeable improvements to the material. They trim the fat and restructure the story subtly so that it feels almost plausible. They establish the many side characters through action and behavior rather than exposition and backstory (until the end, when the backstory becomes crucial to the plot). It's a still a fairly ludicrous story, but at least this time you spend less time thinking about how ludicrous the story is.

Some fans are inevitably going to howl that the film merely skates over the surface of the material and offers a sort of Cliffs Notes version of what Larsson was trying to get at. The film is certainly far less concerned with the political and social commentary that compelled Larsson (an avowed leftist and anti-misogynist) to write the books in the first place. This is to the film's advantage, however, because Larsson's biggest weakness (aside from his at times lazy plotting) was his tendency to launch into eye-roll-inducing speeches to make his points. All that substance remains in the film, but Frykberg and Alfredson simply choose not to bash us over the head with it.

It's hard to know how, if you have only a passing knowledge of the books or the first film, you might respond to this movie. My dad saw both movies without reading the books, and he seemed to enjoy them quite a bit. But I have a feeling many people will be left somewhat cold without the foundation of the books to guide you through all the different characters and the serpentine plot. But I'd say give it a shot, and then go back and read the books for all the cool stuff you missed.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple (2006)

"My wife died in my arms, and my dead baby son was in her arms, and I held her and I said 'I love you, I love you, I love you' because it was all I could say...She died in my arms, man."

"I never believed in Heaven in my whole life, you know, that's not the way I operated. But when I think of Guyana, when I watched the sun rise and stuff, I actually thought there was a Heaven on earth. And now I can't believe in Heaven anymore."

"I ain't never used the term suicide, and I'm not never gonna use the term suicide. That man was killing us."

All three of those quotes are from the closing minutes of Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple, and all come from survivors of the Jonestown massacre, where 900 people commited mass suicide (if you can call it that) at the behest of one of modern history's most infamous and diabolical cult leaders.

Stanley Nelson's 2006 documentary on the subject is pretty standard fare in many ways: lots of archival footage and photos, juxtaposed with lots of people talking. It could have been made by Ken Burns.

It's still likely to be among the most horrifying movies you'll ever see. The film takes us through Jones's life, from his beginnings as the cat-murdering, hyper-religious son of an itinerant alcoholic up through his early days as a pentacostal preacher, to the founding of the Peoples Temple and its subsequent relocation from Indiana to Northern California. Along the way Jones transforms himself from a pretty typical revival-tent preacher to a political powerhouse holding court with San Francisco's liberal power elite to something markedly and diabolically different.

What the film accomplishes so well is providing the context for Jones's rise and fall. He was a product of the Civil Rights movement, and the Peoples Temple at first seemed to be a progressive, integrationist utopia. Jones welcomed everyone: black, white, young, old, clean, sober. But as the years went on and Jones's megalomania, paranoia, drug abuse, and personal depravity began to take over, the Peoples Temple became a world unto itself, a little mini North Korea, belligerent and obsessed with their perceived victimization. When San Francisco's major newspaper finally prepared an exposé of the many abuses taking place within the church, Jones uprooted his followers and shipped off to Guyana, where they went about trying to create a true Communist utopia in the jungles and completely went insane.

We all know what happened next. California Congressman Leo Ryan -- accompanied by a bevy of aides and news reporters -- made a trip to Jonestown at the behest of Concerned Relatives, a group of former Peoples Temple members who still had family caught in Jones's spiral of psychosis. Jones and his followers put on a good show for the congressman, singing and dancing and praising Jones, but when people started passing notes to his aides indicating that they wanted to leave, the shit hit the fan. Ryan was stabbed and then he and several others were gunned down on a dirt airstrip while trying to make their escape. That night Jones compelled his followers to drink the Kool-Aid.

The bare facts of the case are terrible enough, but Nelson managed to unearth a treasure trove of never-before-seen archival footage of Jones and his followers (much of which had been classified by the CIA), and he secured interviews with a number of former Peoples Temple members and survivors of the massacre itself. Their matter-of-fact analysis of what happened -- what drew them into the Temple to begin with, and how it all went wrong -- will make your heart ache and your skin crawl. Jones was a charming but truly depraved individual, and some of the details of what he and his most hardcore followers perpetrated -- both at Jonestown and before -- are absolutely gut-wrenching to hear.

The footage of Ryan's visit and his subsequent murder is equally riveting, and the way Nelson assembles it you'll feel almost as though you're watching the events unfold in real time. After the Jonestown inhabitants throw a massive (show) festival for his delegation on his first (and only night) in Guyana, Ryan addresses the crowd with a big politician's smile and tells them that, from what he has seen, Jonestown appears to be the best thing that has ever happened for them. The crowd erupts in spontaneous cheers and applause that builds in intensity until it resembles one of Hitler's rallies at Nuremberg. Ryan stands there with that smile still plastered as his face, waiting for the din to die down, and the look of horror that slowly fills his eyes the true insanity of what he is witnessing sinks home is absolutely chilling.

The true show-stopper -- and the thing that will likely keep you awake at night -- are the never-before-released audio recordings of the suicide itself. I think most of us probably always assumed that Jones's followers went placidly and lemming-like to their deaths. This couldn't be further from the truth. Many were compelled to do so at gunpoint, and those who resisted were either shot or had the poison injected directly into their mouths.

Really, you don't know horror until you have heard 900 dying people (including children) screaming and crying as Jones intones "Please, please, die with a degree of dignity. Quickly! Quickly! Quickly! Quickly!"

This is the second time I've seen this documentary, and what struck me this time is how skillfully Jones -- an avowed Communist who admitted towards the end that he was using the trappings of religion solely to suck people in -- went about creating a true Stalinist dystopia. Like Orwell's Animal Farm, you could view the rise and fall of The Peoples Temple as a little microcosm of the Soviet Union. His methods -- the literal cult of personality, the purges, the eventual forced collectivisation and church (state) controlled production of goods, the culture of paranoia, and Jones's increasingly militant public broadcasts -- were taken directly from Mao/Pol Pot/Kim Il-Sung playbook.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple is a truly disquieting look at how one charismatic psychopath can turn nearly 1,000 people's good intentions into a slaughterhouse.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

New blog

Hey guys. If you're interested, I'm starting up another blog where I'll be periodically posting some of my short stories, both new and old. Some of these stories go back more than fifteen years!

I've got about thirty old shorts sitting on my computer. I'll probably try to post about one a week.

The blog is called "Dead People Talking," and you can read the first post by clicking the scary dude below:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Top 5 horror movies (you've probably never seen)

Okay, so it might be a little harder to avoid zombies on this list. But I'm gonna try.

The Changeling (1980)

Directed by Peter Medak
Starring George C. Scott, TrishVan Devere

A classic, atmospheric, and almost bloodless ghost story that carries hints of 70s political thriller, The Changeling stars George C. Scott as a celebrated composer who relocates to Seattle after the death of his wife and daughter in an auto accident. He leases a mansion from the local historical society and...yep...discovers that his new house is haunted.

There's nothing strikingly original about this movie, but what sets it apart is the level of craft that went into making it. Director Medak knows how to milk a quiet beat for all its worth, and he knows how to pull some real dread out of the simplest images. Even a rubber ball bouncing down the stairs is turned into one of the scariest shots you'll ever see. Trust me.

And if you try to tell me later that you didn't leak a few drops into your undies during the seance scene, I'm going to call bullshit on you. Liar.

Exorcist III (1990)

Directed by William Peter Blatty
Starring George C. Scott, Brad Dourif

Wow, another George C. Scott movie. I could just make this list my top 5 horror movies starring George C. Scott.

On second thought, I'd be compelled to mention Firestarter and none of us wants that.

Anyway, I can smell your skepticism coming at me through your computer screen like a wet fart. Trust me, this is a good movie. It was written and directed by the original author, and it's connection to the first film is tangential at best.

What Blatty does so well here is not shy away from the long take or the extended monologue and/or dialogue scene...two things you almost NEVER see in horror movies anymore.

And this is the film that cemented Brad Dourif as one of my all time favorite actors. Just check this shit out:

That's the stuff right there.

John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987)

Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Jameson Parker, Donald Pleasance

The second in Carpenter's so-called "apocalypse trilogy" (falling in between 1982's The Thing and 1995's In The Mouth Of Madness), Prince of Darkness is generally considered the weakest of the three (although Mouth certainly has its detractors).

And generally I'd agree. A lot of this movie doesn't work. For one, casting one of the Simons from Simon & Simon as your lead is, in retrospect, a good way to date your movie. And much of the plot is simply confounding.

But Carpenter lands on enough solid ideas and images here to make it worth a watch. It will definitely get under your skin, even if you don't have any idea what the hell is going on. And it's about as successful as updating Lovecraft -- in spirit if not in fact -- for the modern era as any other film I can think of.

And, besides, it has Alice Cooper in it. So how bad can it be?

Parents (1989)

Directed by Bob Balaban
Starring Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt

You read that right. This movie was directed by Bob Balaban.

And yes, I mean this Bob Balaban:

If that's not enough to intrigue you, then hopefully the concept of a young boy in the 1950s discovering that his perfect suburban parents are, in fact, cannibals, will do it.

You'd be forgiven if, reading the above plot description and looking at the movie poster, you'd think that this was Balaban slumming while doing some Troma-style splatterfest. You'd be forgiven, but you'd also be wrong. This movie is damn near an arthouse film. It's slow, understated, and it very effectively puts you inside the subjective reality of a little kid who may or may not have an overactive imagination. And it's actually pretty damn creepy.

Good luck finding it, though. I saw it once about 15 years ago when a friend and I rented a worn out VHS copy up in Paonia Colorado. I think it was out of print even then, and it never made the jump to DVD.

Martin (1977)

Directed by George A. Romero
Starring John Amplas, Tom Savini

Hey look, I made it all the way to the end without including a zombie movie!

However, this masterful vampire flick was written and directed by the godfather of all zombie movies, George A. Romero. he made this one between 1968's Night of the Living Dead and 1979's Dawn of the Dead.

Like Parents, Martin is a surprisingly understated movie, more rooted in psychological drama than straight-out horror. Martin (Amplas) is an awkward young(?) man who believes himself to be an 84 year old vampire. He's been sent to Pittsburgh to live with his Old-World cousin (Elyane Nadeau), who has taken it upon himself to save Martin's soul before killing him.

We never really know for sure if Martin is, in fact, a vampire. It doesn't matter. The unknown Amplas manages to maintain our sympathy, even when he see him killing people and then "doing the sexy stuff" with them after.

What Romero gives us here is a delicately realized character study of a damaged and psychotic man, whether he be an immortal bloodsucking fiend or just a troubled youth from one of the world's most royally fucked-up families.

Honorable Mentions

Carnival of Souls (1962)
The Signal (2008)
Jack Be Nimble (1993)
Session 9 (2001)
The Brood (1979)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Top 5 horror novels (you've probably never heard of)

Picking up where I left off with my last post, here's my list (in no particular order) of the top five horror novels you've probably never heard of.

Again, no zombies.

Thomas M. Disch - The M.D. (1991)

If John Irving ever decided to write horror, he might come up with something like this.

Thomas M. Disch started his career as a fairly celebrated author of "outsider" science fiction back in the 1960s (The Genocides and Camp Concentration being his two most well-known books) before switching to horror in the 1980s and 1990s and penning an equally celebrated quadrilogy of novels set in his native Minnesota.

The Businessman (1984) is the first and probably the best known of these, but he really hit his stride with The M.D.. It's a bizarre Magnificent Ambersons by way of Stephen King sort of book that follows a young boy named Billy Michaels from his Kindergarten days up through his teen years and ending with his massive success (and downfall) as a celebrity doctor.

Early on, Billy meets a figure that appears to him as Santa Claus but later reveals himself to be the Greek god Mercury. Mercury gives Billy a caduceus -- a twig wrapped in snakelike vine, with a mummified bird tied to the top -- that grants him the power to heal. The catch is that for ever person he heals, Billy has to recharge the caduceus by causing someone else harm.

The M.D. is at once epic and deeply intimate, and the details of Billy's life and his eccentric, dysfunctional family are finely drawn. It's also a viciously cynical book that alternates between some truly disturbing images and ideas, unexpected pathos for the characters, and Disch's razor-sharp and sometimes cruel sense of humor. The inevitable tragedy in the last third of the book is Shakespearean in proportion, but you never lose the sense that Disch is cackling all the way to the last page.

Ramsey Campbell - The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1976)

Campbell is a British writer who is absolutely revered by horror fans and virtually unknown by everyone else. The Doll Who Ate His Mother is his first novel, and not his best. But there's something about the youthful naivete behind the prose that is fascinating and more than a little disturbing. Campbell comes up with some pretty squalid ideas and images here, and he doesn't quite seem to realize it. I don't know why, but there's a certain charm in that for me.

The story concerns a young Liverpudlian woman, Clare, who is involved in a terrible car accident. Her brother is killed, and a mysterious figure runs off into the night with his severed arm.

Later, a sleazy true crime writer who believes the arm snatcher to be a former childhood friend of his aproaches Clare and enlists her help in tracking the man down.

This story is structured more like a mystery, but there's something weird and feverish about the prose that elevates it to the realm of dark fantasy, and the details as we learn them grow increasingly nasty, definitely tipping the scales toward horror. This isn't a particularly gory or violent book, but there's something pervasively icky about it all the way through. "Quiet depravity" is the best phrase I can think of to describe it.

Jack Ketchum - The Girl Next Door (1989)

I don't usually recommend this book, for fear that people will lay siege to my house with pitchforks and torches.

A fictional retelling of the Sylvia Likens story, The Girl Next Door is one of the most brutal, violent, and harrowing books I've ever read. It's like American Psycho if Patrick Bateman was a 12-year-old kid and without all that business about expensive shampoo, fancy restaurants, and Whitney Houston.

What makes this novel so effective, however, isn't the depravity (which Ketchum actually toned down a bit from the true story) but the seething sense of outrage that boils beneath Ketchum's matter-of-fact prose. Ketchum explained in the forward to the novel's reissue that he rarely writes supernatural horror because people are what scare him, and that his response to being scared is to get mad. When you read The Girl Next Door, you'll believe it. As vicious as it is, there's nothing exploitive about it. And when -- preceeding a particularly nasty bit of violence -- the narrator breaks the fourth wall and tells us that he simply can't bring himself to describe what happened, you get the sense that it's Ketchum addressing us, not the character.

Phil Rickman - Curfew (1993)

Known as Crybbe in the UK (I guess the publishers thought American audiences wouldn't go for a book titled with some strange Welsh word), Curfew is one of those pretty classic "strange shit happens in a rural town with dark secrets" sort of stories that horror novelists have been milking at least since the days of H.P. Lovecraft.

Crybbe is a little Welsh backwater nestled mere kilometers from the English border. The only distinguishing features are the Tump, a prehistoric man-made mound of indeterminate purpose, and the odd ritual of ringing the bell in the church tower every night to signal an ancient curfew.

Max Goff is a ruthless and impossibly rich record producer from London who descends upon the town with two ambitions: to resurrect the ancient standing stones that have been methodically removed over the centuries and to stage a huge, kickass rock concert celebrating the spirit of the Earth or some other such New Age bullshit.

Goff hires a local dowser to find the original locations of the standing stones. When the dowser is killed in a mysterious car accident near the Tump, he proceeds undeterred. The townspeople grow more and more nervous as the concert date approaches.

And then, of course, hijinks ensue.

What sets this book apart from all the others like it is the way Rickman, a truly masterful writer, evocatively draws us into the world of the Welsh/English borderlands and lets us get to know its many dour inhabitants before ever-so-slowly ratcheting up the creep factor to near excruciating levels. This is one of those long, rich books that you can just live inside of for weeks.

T.E.D. Klein - The Ceremonies (1984)

T.E.D. Klein is a semi-mysterious and somewhat legendary figure in the horror world. He is strikingly non-prolific, having published only two books, The Ceremonies in 1984 and a collection of novellas titled Dark Gods the following year. He's also really, really, really damn good.

I actually prefer Dark Gods to this book, so if you're interested check it out here. Regardless, The Ceremonies stands tall as one of the few unacknowledged masterpieces of "literary" horror.

The book is split into two parallel stories. The first follows Jeremy, a graduate student in literature who moves to a seemingly idyllic town in New Jersey dominated by a strange religious cult to work on his thesis. The second concerns Carole, a naive young woman trying to make her way in New York City. Both characters are linked by an odd and menacing little old man named Mr. "Rosie" Rosebottom.

Over the course of more than 500 pages, the two stories gradually (excruciatingly so, some might say) converge as we come to learn more about Rosie's demonic agenda for both Jeremy and Carol.

Klein is a deliberate and understated writer whose work echoes not only Lovecraft, but the classic dark fiction of authors like M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood. If you're looking for quick and cheap scares, this isn't the book for you. But Klein's prose has a way of burrowing slowly and surely under your skin. The only other writer I can think of who does this better is Patrick McGrath. You'll find, as you turn the pages, that it's the smallest little details that make your skin crawl, and it's the accumulation of these details that eventually builds into a surprisingly affecting novel that is bound to stick with you.

So long as you stay with it, that is.

Honorable Mentions:

Thomas Tryon - Harvest Home
Fritz Leiber - Our Lady of Darkness
Poppy Z. Brite - Drawing Blood
Thomas Tessier - Rapture
Kim Newman - Jago
John Skipp and Craig Spector - The Scream
Joe R. Lansdale - The Nightrunners
Dan Simmons - Carrion Comfort
Bari Wood - Doll's Eyes
Robert Marasco - Burnt Offerings

Monday, August 9, 2010

Top 5 horror stories (that don't have any zombies in them)

Seriously, can we stop with the zombies already?

Don't get me wrong. I love zombies. Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are my two favorite movies. But -- somewhere between 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead -- zombies became the "it" horror movie monster and the stories lost most of the gritty, apocalyptic power that animated the genre.

That's not to say I hate everything new that's zombie related. Shaun of the Dead is brilliant. Zombieland was pretty fun, even if it did reduce my beloved carnivorous undead to a silly gimmick in what's essentially a teen nerd comedy. And, of course, I enjoy A Modern Girl's Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse, an always funny blog written by some friends of mine (look for the TV version soon).

But, exceptions aside, I want it to stop.

The zombie plague has not only infected our cinemas and TV screens, but our bookstore shelves as well. I stopped at Borders earlier today and decided to peruse the horror section. It's been awhile since I've done so, and I was dismayed to discover that virtually every new book that wasn't a Stephen King or Dean Koontz reprint was some variant on a zombie story.

I picked one up -- a zombie-themed short story anthology with absurdly cheap-looking cover art -- and thumbed through it.

Here's the first sentence that my eyes landed upon: "The thing advanced slowly and she screamed loudly."

Really? Two adverbs in one sentence, one of which is completely redundant. I groaned and put the book back on the shelf.

So in the interest of trying to stem the zombie (and terrible writing) tide, my next three blog posts are going to be about the type of horror that I want to see make a resurgence. I'm going to follow this one up with my lists of the top five horror novels you've probably never heard of and the top five horror movies you've probably never seen. You didn't ask for it, but I'm gonna give it to you anyway.

But first, the short stories.

Most of my sensibilities as a writer grew from reading classic horror short stories as a kid, most of which were written between roughly 1940 and the mid 1980s. That's around when the splatterpunks took over and horror fiction became about shoving as much fucked up shit into as small a space as possible.

I have nothing against sex, gore, or fucked up shit, but to me the best horror stories should cut like a scalpel rather than bludgeon like a hammer. As Stephen King once said, if a novel is like long love affair a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.

So, in reverse chronological order, here's my list of my top five favorite horror short stories, none of which feature zombies:

Stephen King - "You Know They Got A Hell Of A Band"

Where you can find it: Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1992)

I'm cheating a bit here, because the two Stephen King stories that actually spooked me the most are "Children of the Corn" (in Night Shift) and "Gramma" (in Skeleton Crew). But I'm going with this one, because it's the most unlikely.

A variation on King's oft-explored "weird little town" genre (see "Children..." and "Rainy Season"), "You Know They Got A Hell Of A Band" follows a bickering married couple as they make their way through rural Oregon on their way up to Seattle. They take a wrong turn, stumble on a bad patch of road, and then find themselves in a picaresque, Rockwell-esque little town called Rock and Roll Heaven.

They stop at a local diner, where they meet a waitress who passes a note telling them to get out while they still can. The proprietor of the place happens to look just like Janis Joplin. The cook's a dead ringer for Ricky Nelson. Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly pop in for a bite.

And then things get really weird.

This is a strange and potentially silly setup for a horror story, but King plays it straight and puts his thumb right on the demonic and otherworldly quality that defines our rock and roll stars. And, in so doing, he takes us through a version of Hell that you'd probably never considered before.

And I will never be able look at a picture of Buddy Holly again without imagining his eyes filling with blood.

Clive Barker - "In The Hills, The Cities"

Where you can find it: The Books of Blood: Volume One (1984)

Clive Barker gets a lot of the credit (or the blame) for kicking off the splatterpunk genre in the mid 80s. And it's true, his earliest short stories (compiled in the Books of Blood series) were pretty transgressive for their time. But the rawness of his imagination outdid that of any of the imitators that followed.

"In the Hills, the Cities" is another one of those weird little town stories (this town happens to be in Yugoslavia), but it manages to be one of the strangest short stories I've ever read. The less I say about the plot the better, but rest assured the central concept is so strikingly bizarre that dozens if not hundreds of horror writers have been trying to top it ever since.

And the fact that the two main characters are a gay couple -- presented realistically and without caricature -- was far more daring for its time than any of the gore or weird sex that you'll find throughout the rest of the books.

Richard Matheson - "Born of Man and Woman" (originally published 1950)

Where you can find it: here.

"This day when it had light mother called me retch. You retch she said. I saw in her eyes the anger. I wonder what it is a retch."

Richard Matheson went on to write I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Stir of Echoes, and about a million screenplays and Twilight Zone episodes, including "Terror at 20,000 Feet" and "Duel."

But he started his career with the words I quoted above. It's the opening paragraph to his first published short story, a horrid little gem called "Born of Man and Woman." The story is brilliant in its simplicity. It's also about a page and a half long.

Read it and see if you don't get a shiver up your spine.

Theodore Sturgeon - "The Professor's Teddy Bear" (originally published in Weird Tales, 1948)

Where you can find it: good luck

I really wish I could remember more about this one. I used to have it in some cheapo compilation I picked up at Waldenbooks or something way back when I was in high school, and I remember that (second only to "In the Hills, the Cities") it was just about the weirdest thing I had ever read. It was also very spooky and made me look at my teddy bear (yes, I still had a teddy bear in high school, fuck you) with suspicious eyes.

I lost the book years ago, and I've been looking for the story ever since. If anyone has ever run across it, please let me know.

H.P. Lovecraft - "Pickman's Model" (originally published in Weird Tales, 1927)

Where you can find it: probably just about any of the hundreds of Lovecraft compilations out there.

You can't make a list like this without talking about H.P. Lovecraft (although I almost did...I was sorely tempted to go with Daphne Du Maurier's "The Birds" or "Don't Look Now"), and you could just about pick any one of his stories at random.

I considered "At the Mountains of Madness," which is my personal favorite. But it's really more of a novella than a short story. So "Pickman's Model" it is.

"Pickman's Model" tells the story-within-a-story of Richard Upton Pickman, a half-mad artist in Boston whose paintings are so graphic and horrifying that he has been shunned by the art community. He leads the narrator on a tour of his gallery and shows him a particular painting of a strange humanoid creature eating what appears to be a person.

Then there's a weird noise ... and I guess you probably know where this is going.

"Pickman's Model" isn't really one of Lovecraft's more famous cosmic horror stories. It falls more in line with what I'd call the "subterranean horror" of something like "The Rats in the Walls." These were always my favorites. They're grittier, slimier, pulpier, and far less concerned with making you wonder what's out beyond the stars than in making you afraid of what might dwell in the hidden caverns under your feet.

And Lovecraft is helped by his stylistic experimentation here. By framing the story as a casual conversation between the narrator and the unnamed listener (us), he avoids the sometimes impenetrable excess that characterizes so many of his other stories.

Honorable Mentions

"The Book of Irrational Numbers" by Michael Marshall Smith
"Children of the Corn" by Stephen King
"Nadelman's God" by T.E.D. Klein
"The White People" by Arthur Machen
"The Night They Missed the Horror Show" by Joe R. Lansdale

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Inception (2010)

Warning: Mild Spoilers

I had to think about this one for awhile before I wrote about it.

Say what you want about Christopher Nolan's new epic Inception. Bloated, sure. Confusing, absolutely. Overcooked, probably. Does it all work? No.

But you can't deny the ambition behind it. It's a film that was clearly made by an intellectually curious mind genuinely trying to discover something new. For a Hollywood summer blockbuster with a budget topping out at $160 million in this age of megastupid crap like G.I. Joe and Transformers, that's damn near miraculous.

I'm not even going to try to sum up the plot, because to do so would be an act of pure futility. Most of you, if you haven't seen it, probably already know the basics: Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a Man With A Past who makes a dubious living hacking into the dreams of corporate scions and stealing information. This heist-of-the-subconscious is called "extraction." But then he's made an Offer He Can't Refuse by a Japanese energy tycoon (Ken Watanabe) and assembles a team to do the seeming impossible: hack into the dreams of the heir (Cillian Murphy) to a rival corporation and plant an idea rather than to take one. This is called, predictably enough, "inception." So Cobb hires an architect (Ellen Page) to design the dream, and a bunch of other dudes to do some other stuff. And we're off to the races.

Nifty idea, right? And kind of unworkable, when you get right down to it. In the hands of a lesser talent (say, oh, I don't know, Michael Bay), it would have been a big steaming mess. But going in I knew that if anyone could make sense of this, it would be Christopher Nolan.

Rather than try to dissect what this movie's doing or make sense of it (which, until I see it about eight more times, would be pretty much impossible), I'm just going to list what I thought worked and didn't work.

1. Dream Reality

Some critics are knocking this movie for not really pulling off the "dream logic." I think this is kind of a bullshit criticism, to be honest. Dreams are inherently impossible to capture within a narrative, filmic context. As soon as the imagery is made literal by a camera, the whole thing falls apart. The only two films I can really think of that come close to capturing the sheer insanity of what a dream actually is are Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder and David Lynch's Lost Highway. All the other attempts I can think of have always felt overly schematic to me.

Nolan -- as schematic a filmmaker as has ever existed -- knows this, I think she he's not really going to try. Inception doesn't attempt to capture the chaos, absurdity, surrealism, and naked emotional force of our most powerful dreams. Rather, he presents an off-kilter constructed reality more similar to what we get in The Matrix. And this is the point. These aren't "dreams" as we're accustomed to thinking of them. They are created, by the characters and for a very specific purpose. We are given levels within levels within levels of reality, one inside the other like those Russian nesting dolls, as we descend deeper into Murphy's (and, simultaneously, DiCaprio's) subconscious.

It's no accident that the whole concept of "architecture" plays a major thematic and narrative role here, and the constant imagery of stairs and elevators reinforces this. It's not about experiencing a dream-state, but rather deconstructing the very idea of reality, time and perception, and in an analytical way. This has been Nolan's obsession (even in the Batman films) since he began making movies. Go back and rewatch Following if you disagree.

2. Story Structure

This is where Nolan really lives and breath, and in that sense the screenplay to Inception is meticulously crafted. It's not really a puzzle movie the way Memento is, but it's incredibly dense and has about a million moving parts to keep track of. It's pretty amazing how clear Nolan is able to keep everything. Unfortunately, the only way he seems to be able to do this is to resort to a nearly constant stream of exposition. But whatever. Like he himself said recently in an interview, heist films are the only types of movies where the excitement itself comes from the exposition. It's about knowing the details of how everything's supposed to work, and then seeing it all fall apart. And at it's heart, Inception really is a heist movie.

3. Character Development

I -- and many others -- have always said that this is Nolan's weakness. A Christopher Nolan film is all about the ideas, and the characters sort of exist to further those ideas. As such, they are often only half-alive. In Inception DiCaprio's main personal motivation mirrors that of Leonard (Guy Pierce) in Memento. Each man is trying to deal with the grief and the guilt of losing his wife (Jorja Fox in Memento, Marion Cotillard here). In both films, the emotional resonance of the personal tragedy is subsumed by the need to use the tragedy to propel the plot.

Personally, I'm okay with that. I give Nolan a bit of a pass here. I don't go to one of his films expecting to have my heart strings plucked. His movies are about the head and not so much about the heart.

What saves him is his ability to attract top-notch actors who manage to pull what heart they can out of the thin writing. Pierce managed to turn in a pretty devastating performance in Memento that builds slowly over the course of the film. I'm always surprised every time I watch it how affecting it actually is.

The same is true here. DiCaprio doesn't have the light touch Pierce did. He broods, Christian Bale-style, pretty much from the first frame, whereas Pierce made the more interesting choice to play laconically against Leonard's inner turmoil, thereby making the moments of intensit, where the turmoil manifests itself pop that much more. But DiCaprio brings an intensity to his best work that can be utterly gripping (see The Departed and Blood Diamond), if a little one-note. I would have preferred something a little less scowly -- less Marlon Brando and more Robert Mitchum -- but overall I'd say it mostly works.

Cotillard, in the thankless role of the dead wife who exists only in Cobb's mind, manages to be incandescent in every scene, and with very little to do. I have to admit I fell in love with her a bit myself here. It's because of her that this movie is as powerful as it is.

I also have to give a shout-out to the future Mrs. Scotty Milder, i.e. Ellen Page. I've pined for her pretty much since Juno (I know, I know. At least I didn't say Hard Candy). Her character here is pure plot, but she still provides that light touch that is so sorely missing from DiCaprio's performance. Long story short, I love her. The end.

Everyone else is uniformly strong, particularly Tom Hardy (Bronson) as the most roguishly charming of DiCaprio's fellow dream hackers. The only disappointment for me was Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He's okay, but I've become so accustomed to him being great in things like Brick and The Lookout that he underwhelmed me.

4. The Special Effects

What can I say? The Dark Knight really established Nolan as a A-list action director, and it did so with a refreshing dirth of "look at me Ma!" CGI. There's more in Inception, but Nolan wisely keeps it to a minimum. Many of the most impressive set pieces -- the fight in the rotating hallway, the van plunging into the water, the avalanche -- were done practically.

When Nolan does go for the big CGI sequence, he goes all out. We've all seen that shot of Paris folding up on itself in the trailer (which is too bad, really, because it kind of takes away from the "wow" factor when you actually see the movie). The ruined city-scape toward the end is truly mind blowing. And there's one shot involving a train (if you've seen it you know what I'm talking about) that actually made me recoil in my seat. But he uses this stuff only when he has to. Nolan has proven himself to be a real visual stylist, and he knows how to use his big bag of tools effectively and sparingly, to propel his ideas rather than simply show off.

5. The Music

I'm usually not a fan of huge crashing soundtracks. I may be the only person on earth who kind of can't stand John Williams' score for Star Wars. So I was surprised by how effective I found James Horner's work here. Once the movie really gets going the music never lets up, which normally would drive me batshit, but for some reason it actually added to the experience here. I can't really say why. I have a feeling, though, that it might irritate me on repeat viewings.

So that's my very broad take on Inception. I don't think it's the ground-breaking, awe-inspiring masterpiece that so many people claim it is. I also don't take the contrarian view that it's an overblown piece of shit (sorry Dusty). In the end, if I was to grade it, I guess I'd give it an A-, with several points added for the sheer balls it took to get it made in this environment. This is a huge summer movie that you can actually talk about once it's over. I'll give my kudos for that every time.