Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why I like The Sandman

Why I like The Sandman

1) I fell into Goth quite by accident. I was in my teens, hanging out with a bunch of angry suburban punk kids, and slowly figuring out that I didn't really fit in with them. I was getting into Vampire: the Masquerade and I was checking out vampire books and movies by the dozen. They opened up a Hot Topic at the Serramonte shopping mall in Daly City, and I talked my mom into buying me a big black vampire tee-shirt and some black jeans. I wore them with pride the following day and one of my shitty punk friends snorted that I looked like a Goth. I had no idea what the term meant, but I liked the sound of it. I bought the Goth Rock 2 sampler CD from the used-CD store near campus, which lead to zines, which lead to concerts, which lead to clubs, and the rest is history. 90s-era Goth comes with a reading list. The Sandman rests pretty high on top of it.

2) Calling The Sandman horror is a little reductive. While the series was marketed as a horror title early on ("I will show you fear in a handful of dust") it grew to encompass all manner of speculative fiction. Most of my favorite issues -- especially the serial killer convention -- fit squarely in the horror genre, but the book is really a meta-story about storytelling itself.

3) The Sandman is about Dream of the Endless, a personification of dreams, imagination, fantasy, and storytelling that threads through all creation. He's a Byronic hero, constantly brooding and taking himself far too seriously. The book starts with him being taken hostage by an Aleister Crowley-esque occultist. The experience traumatizes him so deeply that he spends the rest of his series pushing against the boundaries of his responsibilities. It ends with him either dying or recreating himself into a more compassionate incarnation. Despite the wild digressions, the book really centers around the character of Dream. Every story presents a new facet of his personality and the strain he's under, until the tragic ending seems both inevitable and self-directed.

4) It seems like the most popular character in the series is Death, Dream's older sister. Unlike most incarnations of the Grim Reaper, The Sandman's Death is a chipper Perky Goth with a positive attitude on life and boundless reserves of compassion. My own opinion has changed on her has changed significantly over the years. At first, oh my god, I luuurved her and we should be best friends. As time went on and I had my own experiences with people passing, I got angry with how flip the Death character came off. Death is the root of all horror in existence, so the idea of making it into a goth version of every Connie Cheerful Church Camp I've ever met made me very angry in a way that now feels like I'm projected my own fears onto the character. I've eased up some, and I've come to love Death's compassion for her charges, but I still feel like I have a different experience with the character than a lot of the fans of the book.

5) There are lots of fantastic moments both great and small in the book; Dream's dinner with his brother Destruction, the lovely African story of two lovers separated by fate, a weary yet still deadly Lucifer, the long-lived oaf Hob Gadling, the Lovecraftian dreams of cities, the illustrated difference between the fantasies of girls and boys. My favorite was the aforementioned serial killer convention. I've seen dozens of serial killer stories in my time, but I've never seen one that so viciously attacks the self-aggrandizing mythologies that serial killers create for themselves to justify their behavior. Dream seems to take a swipe at the very concept of turning the serial killer into dark heroes and it works beautifully.

6) My friends and I tried to record a Sandman podcast recently, but we got tripped up on technical issues. As the conversation grew, I was impressed that there was so much stuff to cover: so many great moments and fantastic ideas, each of us with our own interpretation of the story. People gravitate to different elements of The Sandman and each experience has it's own rewards.

Conclusion: The Sandman is one of the best stories I've ever read. I return to it from time to time. Like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, it's a barometer for seeing how I've changed over the years.

I promised myself that the first money I ever make selling my fiction will go a statue of Dream than I can put on my writing desk. Gaiman taught me that stories are sacred and I'm honored to both draw from and add my own small contribution to the Dreaming. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why I like Movie Psychos and Madmen

Why I like Movie Psychos and Madmen by John McCarty

1) I must have been 13 or 14 years old when I discovered this book. We were in the Barnes & Noble in Jack London Square for some day trip. I toddled over to the movie sections, looking for books on horror. I'd been reading stuff like Splatter Movies and Men, Women, and Chainsaws. I found Movie Psychos and Madmen on the shelf and flipped open the book. Included among its often-scary photos was a portrait of both Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. How could I turn it down? 

2) The book is a comprehensive history of madmen in cinema, written in a conversational style. Splatter Movies was too informal and Men, Women, and Chainsaws was too academic. Movie Psychos was approachable. I could grasp it at my age, yet it still retained enough history and insight to be rewarding upon constant rereads. 

3) Movie Psychos was my first introduction to film history. I'd never heard of German expressionism before, but the book taught me about Dr. Mabuse and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I'd never heard of the post-Psycho run of lunatics. It was the first book to teach me about that film had a fantastic legacy to discover.

4) The book also gave me the best framework I've ever used for human psychology. Because McCarty isn't a psychologist but an excellent observer of narrative, he treats cinematic character's psychoses like storylines. Every story is a puzzle, with every subtle or overt act of madness a clue. The more I get to know people, the more I realize that we're constantly dropping clues about ourselves. Movie psychos are simply more obvious in their signals.

5) I was initially interested in the book because it had a chapter on slasher monsters, but the book is dismissive of Michael, Jason, and their ilk. For all their campfire-story intensity they aren't particularly full of depth. I was initially frustrated, but the film challenged me to ask more from my horror. Scary movies could be more than their body count. The twists of the human mind made every psycho into their own private haunted house. 

Conclusion: Movie Psychos and Madmen trained my brain in how to analyze both stories and people. It gave me a passion for the exploring the depth of cinema. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to McCarty. His book provided my first instruction on critical thought. Movie Psychos is part of the DNA of this blog, my podcast, and all the other output that comes from being a horror fan.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why I like Freddy Vs. Jason

Why I like Freddy vs. Jason

1) I first asked Kane Hodder about Freddy vs. Jason while he made an appearance with Linda Blair at some local Halloween carnival. I'd just gotten into horror in a big way, and Jason Voorhees was my big heeeero. Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday had just come out an the film ended with Freddy Krueger's gloved hand reaching up from hell to retrieve the iconic hockey mask. I was all of eleven years old and a lifetime of superhero books engrained a love of the superfight. Hodder said that the film was in development, but it didn't come out until well after I graduated high school.  I wasn't disappointed.

2) I'm ultimately a Jason guy. Jason is my Frankenstein. He's ultimately pitiable, if you're willing to be reaaaaally generous about his origin story. Freddy is fun, but he's a harder guy to like. He's the bully. The whole child molestation thing also doesn't help much.

3) I got really into following the development of the movie on the internet. Multiple scripts had been written, some with really farcical ideas on how the two characters should battle. They finally turned in a script that made neither slasher the "good guy" but gave them plausible reasons to come into conflict. The movie ultimately feels more like a Nightmare film than a Friday film, but it works, in it's own overly complicated way.  It's perhaps a little too invested in tying the mythos of both movies together, but it also understood Jason's appeal. They knew he has a big, dumb, lost kid gone bad. 

4) Freddy vs. Jason isn't particularly scary per se but it has some astonishing nightmarish images, in particular Mark's nightmare visit from his dead brother. The film bears the distinct touch of legendary Hong Kong director Ronny Yu. I got into pre-takeover Hong Kong action cinema after seeing John Woo's Hard Boiled and I loved Yu's wild fantasy film The Bride With White Hair. Yu works in vivid colors and operatic fights, which made him ideal for the FvJ comic book battles.

5) A lot of the plot is actually pretty clunky and the lead characters come off as more weird than anything else, but the set pieces are cool. Krueger's boiler room looks like a nightmarish hellscape, the flashback scenes of Camp Crystal Lake establish the brutality we've long suspected was part of Jason's childhood, and the portrayal of Freddy's corruption of Jason's mother all flesh out the mythology of both characters brilliantly. 

6) Say what you will about everything that came before, the final fight between Freddy vs. Jason does not disappoint. It's one part pro-wrasslin', one part superhero battle, with a dash of Hong Kong wire work for flavor. They ditched Hodder, the best Jason actor, over stuntman Ken Kirzinger. Kirzinger towers over Robert England, and they make a great visual contrast. The battle nearly tears Crystal Lake in two, and the addition of the nearby construction site gives them a bunch of stuff to hit each other with. 

7) Jason wins. I don't care about the final knowing wink to the audience, there's one guy walking out of the lake at the end of the movie. 

Conclusion: It's often said that the death of a monster is either parody or fighting other monsters. Freddy vs. Jason obviously falls into the grand tradition of all the great Frankenstein/Dracula/Wolfman mashup. Both Freddy and Jason had their final pre-Platinum Dunes hurrah and it fulfilled every boyhood dream of mine.         


Monday, October 27, 2014

Why I like The Ring

Why I like The Ring

1) The first time I saw the movie, I remember getting ready to leave once Rachel had discovered Samara's body and laid it to rest. She's back with her son Aiden and all appears well. Her son asks her what happened to Samara, Rachel responds that she helped the dead little girl find peace, and Aiden responds with terror. He says "you weren't supposed to help her," and ice cubes slid down my spine. The scene immediately afterward, where Samara kills Aiden's father, was one of the scariest moments in 2000s-era horror. Everything I knew about ghosts had been thrown out the window.  We were in dangerous territory.

2) The movie is gorgeous. It's got a watched-out gloomy blue and gray tone that reminds me of old Gothic horror films. I grew up in foggy San Francisco and the atmosphere of the film reminded me of home. Melancholy coastal towns work particularly well in creating a Gothic atmosphere, which fits the ghost story.

3) Horror works best when it's simple. If you watch this tape, you die seven days later. The only way to stay alive is to get someone else to watch the tape. Otherwise, a drowned girl crawls out of your TV and kills you.

4) The interesting thing about The Ring is that Rachel isn't actually that great of a mother. Horror fiction is full of overly caring, overly diligent parents and, while Rachel will do anything to keep her son safe from Samara's wrath, we get the sense that she's too preoccupied in her own life. Aiden refers to his mother by her first name, he's able to do a lot of things for himself, and he has the kind of self-assured maturity of someone who has to a lot of shit on his own. It creates a unique family dynamic, especially after we meet Aiden's father.

5) The movie is unrelentingly grim. The story is structured like a mystery, and deciphering the enigma of Samara's life makes her both sympathetic and terrifying. When you finally learn what happened to her, you realize why she will never stop hurting people.

6) The Ring has two of the most effective jump scares I've ever seen. I'm a sucker for frightening faces and the wreckage Samara leaves behind are among the most terrifying corpse effects I've ever seen. I imagine they're supposed to be waterlogged bodies left down in at the bottom of the well, but that doesn't account for the distended jaws. I also really like Noah's death. Rachel runs to save him, finds his body, and screams. We don't see what she sees until the big reveal later on, when his face is the final one we settle on.  It remains one of the most disturbing images ever captured on film.

7) The movie terrified me more than most horror films because it felt inescapable: Samara's vengeance was so lethal that the only way you could escape it was to feed other people to her. Samara looked like something otherworldly. Watching her crawl out of the well remains one of the greatest horror images of all time.

Conclusion: The Ring reprogrammed the way I viewed horror. It broke a lot of my expectations, it approached the genre with intelligence, and it created a monster that seeped into the dank basement of my subconscious. I saw Samara every time I turned off the lights. The Ring brought me back to my childhood fear and I'll love it forever.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why I like The Blair Witch Project

Why I like The Blair Witch Project

1) My first big road trip was a journey to Pasadena to attend the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors with my high school friends. We saw the Munsters' doom buggy, I ran into Marc Dacascos in a hallway, we watched some pro-wrasslin', and I caught the Ghastly Ones live on stage. In between it all, I kept seeing this poster around the convention hall: 

This was mercifully before the age of viral marketing, social media, Io9's pop media coverage, or any of the other ways we're all constantly connected to streams of information. I'd heard the missing posters had something to do with a movie that had taken Sundance by storm. The second night we were there, my friends and I scored free tickets to a special late screening at a nearby theater. 

2) I had no idea what I was in for, but I was a horror fan surrounded by horror fans. Collectively we'd seen the worst possible films that humanity had to offer. What could some weird little art house movie do to us? 

3) The movie started without a lot of preamble. It looked like a genuine documentary about a haunted experience. We knew it was fiction but goshdarnit, it looked so real

4) Things start getting weird slowly. People get lost, but that's not entirely surprising given that the filmmakers are a bunch of city kids with a camera. They start losing their shit, blaming each other, and falling apart. All the while, the legend that they've been investigating turns out to be true. 

5) For me, the tension became quickly unbearable. I was acclimated to horror in from the 80s and early 90s, where everything was obviously artificial. Slashers telegraphed their kills in highly-ritualized kabuki dances. Ghosts had their tiresome dripping walls and spooky sound effects. I'd never seen real people being haunted by something whose rules I couldn't understand. Because I'd been so invested in the genre, most horror movies made me feel like I was an insider, more akin to the monsters and ghosts than the victim. Blair Witch Project put me back in the victim's shoes. 

6) As the attacks got worse, I began to wait eagerly for the daylight. The attacks always seemed to ease off once nighttime dissipated. By the end, the characters weren't even safe in the daylight. Then they discovered the old house. . . 

7) The scene of Heather making her final confession has been parodied over and over again, but the actual moment has tremendous power to it. She has been pushed past the point of endurance and has no hope left anymore. It's some of the best acting I've ever seen in horror cinema.

8) I'll never forget what happened after the credits rolled. An entire theater full of hardcore horror fans, who had seen he worst of the worst, rose up from their seats silently as one and left the theater. It was eerily quiet. They all acted like the world had ended in front of them. We left the theater into an empty Pasadena street.   

Conclusion: Watching The Blair Witch Project for the first time was one of the best experiences of my life. I was completely smitten by the movie and became it's fiercest advocate. Unfortunately, the movie couldn't survive the world-of-mouth of the real world. The shaky cam nausea was a real issue (I have a harder time with it these days) but there were also tons of meatheads who wanted blood and monster make-up. It was a soft touch movie and I admired that. The whole found-footage thing has been done to death but it's still an effective immersive tool. I really like The Blair Witch Project. I know it's become sort of a touchstore of early 90s pop-culture, but it's also one of the most important foundations of modern horror cinema.        

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Why I like Berberian Sound Studio

Why I like Berberian Sound Studio

1) I saw Berberian Sound Studio in the worst possible circumstances: I watched the entire thing on my iPhone over several sessions walking on an elliptical machine at my local gym. Cardio is both necessary and incredibly boring, and I had gotten sick of listening to podcasts while I worked out. I saw some less-than-stellar movies, but Berberian Sound Studio captured my imagination. I got into Only Lovers Left Alive at around the same time, and I've been a fierce advocate for both films since. It seems like there have been a lot of smart, classy horror films over the last few years and I was really excited to share them with people. 

2) Like Only Lovers, Berberian is total sound porn. Instead of music, Berberian focuses on the sound engineering and foley work used to make an effective horror film. I've never seen a film that made such brilliant use of sound effect work.

3) Confession time: I've never much cared for the "golden age" of 1970s Italian horror cinema. I think most of the appeal comes from a strange mix of nostalgia for an era that was before my time, a misreading of incompetent film making that gets confused for camp, and a gorehound's delight in a few key scenes of truly nasty gore effects. I'm watching Lucio Fulci's Zombie 2 on the second monitor as I type this and no one ever remembers anything substantial about the film. They just remember the eye gouging and the shark fight. I do like The Beyond and the Argento film Phenomena but Italian horror doesn't really work for me. But it does make a fantastic backdrop for Gilderoy's mental breakdown. 

4) I am embarrassed to admit it, but I see far too much of myself in Gilderoy. I'm small and easily bowled over, and I'm often shocked when people act selfishly. His timid personality puts him at a huge disadvantage when he's brought to Italy to work on some perverse giallo film. My own experience in Italy taught me that the people can often be, um, unnecessarily assertive. A sheltered person like Gilderoy would easily be bowled over. Gilderoy's immediate supervisor is rude to him without reason, the receptionist is dismissive, and everyone either blows him off or talks down to him. The only one who treats Gilderoy decently is the film's director, and he's a manipulative narcissist with grandiose ideas about the misogynist trash he's creating.

5) The film takes places in a strange film noir world. The hallways disappear down impossible distances, the rooms never seem to be properly lit, and the recording rooms are all like tiny coffins. The entire movie world feels like an echo chamber, which is perfect for the best aspect of Berberian Sound Studios: the masterful use of sound.

6) I've never seen a movie so lush with aural detail. You never actually see the movie Gilderoy is helping to make, but the horrific special effects conjure up a pretty clear image of how nasty the movie must be. Sound is used to brilliant effect in the film. Every cut lettuce, every dropped melon feels like a violation of the human body. I've heard a thousand screams captured on horror cinema, but I've never heard anything as gut-wrenching as the screams of frustration captured in the recording booth.

7) The movie follows Gilderoy's descent into madness, as his life begins to thread into the movie. Perhaps the occult nature of the film casts a spell on him, perhaps he starts going insane, perhaps he was insane to begin with, a man who appeared out of the film itself. The ambiguity made the ending frustrating for a lot of people, but I found it intriguing. I can't wait to go back and revisit the film. Hopefully next time on a better screen. 

Conclusion: I've never seen a horror film that so effectively used the mechanics of cinema to deliver tension. Watching Gilderoy degenerate to the chaos around him becomes almost operatic. The line between film and "reality" gets razor-thin over the course of the movie. It's a rare treat, and one of my favorite recent horror films.                 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why I like Shadows in the Asylum: The Case Files of Dr. Charles Marsh

Why I like D.A. Stern's Shadows in the Asylum: The Case Files of Dr. Charles Marsh

1) A little autobiographical note: my first post-college internship was for the San Francisco District Attorney's office's criminal investigation division. The bulk of the job involved preparing discovery documentation for defense attorneys, which meant I spent my days looking through fascinating information processed through extremely tedious forms. One murderer in particular, a mentally-ill drifter who butchered a teenage girl, had a lifetime of paperwork stretching back to institutionalized forms from the late 1950s. Taken together, the entire case file presented the sordid, sad details of a man's mental degeneration and the institutional failure to treat him properly.

2) Horror fiction is full of people finding discarded documentation. Beleaguered heroes are constantly finding old case files, mysterious tomes, and newspaper clippings pasted on serial killer's walls. These little clues provide tantalizing glimpses into the origin of whatever evil the characters are facing. D.A. Stern's Shadows in the Asylum is an epistolary novel where all those little clippings tell the story of a doctor, a mental patient, and the supernatural horror stalking them both.

3) The novel never breaks from it's central premise. The entire book is told in therapy session reports, newspaper clippings, surveillance footage, and album liner notes. While it seems like the haphazard nature of the collection would prevent close identification with the characters, but the doctor's notes show the the man's struggles, doubt, and acceptance.

4) Because of the way the story is told, the events feel very real. Fiction has a lot of fundamental artificiality that comes from trying to create a prose style. As the novel effectively mimics different forms of formal documentation rather than telling a single narration, it really does feel like a found artifact of some terrible event.

5) The book also does mental health facilities better than anything I've ever seen. Horror is full of Arkham Asylum-style madhouses, full of cackling madmen beating their heads against padded walls. The psychiatric care facility in the book seems to function correctly. It's a higher-end institution, with good counselors, regular treatment, and a strong drug regimen. It seems plausible, which makes the supernatural elements seem plausible.

6) The horror at the core of the story unfolds slowly. For most of the book, the tales of shadows creeping the hospital hallways seem like ordinary delusions. The doctor finds a potential cause, resolves it, and the book appears to be on the way to a happy ending. Once the real evil makes itself known, the book takes on a new level of fear. The book is ultimately a Lovecraftian horror story, where the monster is something alien and unknowable, causing havoc with it's presence in the asylum. It's one of the scariest creatures I've ever encountered in horror fiction.

Conclusion: I'm really sad that Shadows in the Asylum didn't get a bigger following. It's a really unique and scary book, one of the best haunted-house stories I've ever read. It creates one of the most convincing fictional worlds I've ever seen, and rewards people for falling deeper into the story. I own several copies of the book so I can come back and revisit it over time. It has my highest recommendation.