Thursday, April 30, 2009

Zombie Drill

I posted this because, y'know, horror blog and yadda yadda yadda. But really, this is kinda messed up. Them kids seem traumatized at the end. Kudos to the one kid who was kidney punching the zombie, though. I think we've got our next Chris Redfield.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Book of More Flesh

My loyal readers, I come to you hat-in-hand to admit that I am a prejudiced person.

When I wrote my Living Dead review, I spoke a little bit about Almost The Last Story By Almost The Last Man, a fantastic story by Scott Edelman. His credits listed that he'd been previously published in Eden Studios anthology tie-in for their All Flesh Must Be Eaten zombie role-playing game. While writing my review, I wrote something vaguely snotty about how I was surprised that a writer this good could come from the gaming world.

Fast forward a few days later. Someone involved with the anthology contacted me and asked, very politely, if I'd ever actually read the book. I hadn't. I've read plenty of tie-in novels growing up and most of them were poorly written. I put my ear to the ground, heard some generally positive feedback, and decided to give The Book of More Flesh a fair shake.

Turns out I wasn't disappointed.

A big part of the anthology's success is due to the fact that the writers aren't particularly bound by the source material. Most role-playing games come with elaborate settings that writers are expected to adhere to. All Flesh is less about building a specific world and more about giving the players a wide variety of options to build their own flavor of zombie apocalypse. Without any particular constraints from the franchise, the anthology featured a bunch of talented young writers giving the whole zombie thing their best shot.

The whole say-something-about-individual-stories thing seemed to have worked well for me before. Let's do it again:

Goobers by Scott Edelman: When I was a teenager, the slacker philosophy among my moron friends went something like this: Don't be known for working to your full potential. People will come to expect it of you. After being knocked on my ass by his contribution to Living Dead I expected a repeat performance. It's pretty good but it didn't rattle my cage like his previous efforts. It has that jokey construct a lot of horror stories have, where the tale is a big lead-up to the shocking final punchline.

The Husks by Paul Finch: Paul Finch is a British police officer and, reading between the lines of the story, he's dissatisfied with the leniency of the British penal system. This story is essentially a cathartic "he-had-it-comin'" revenge piece. Generally I'm all for these, but it reads like a lecture and the American psychic "hero" is shrill and unpleasant. Still, it had a serviceable, EC-style twist ending.

The Hounds of Love by Scott Nicholson: Astute readers among you will remember that my co-reviewer and confidant is one Professor Demon Bunny.

PDB lives with me. He is, indeed, evil. He tears my furniture up, seduces my womenfolk, and attacks my house guests without provocation. Despite all this, I love the little bastard. So I was a little bit pissed off when The Hounds of Love started with the graphic killing of a cute little bunny.

I was all set to HATE this story. Killing defenseless bunnies is a no-go for me. Yet somehow Scott Nicholson got me back on his side. Abusive parents, budding young sociopaths, and rural gothic settings are nothing new, but Nicholson made them emotionally engaging. I felt BAD for the bunny-killing bastard, and the way zombies were integrated into the story was inventive and unexpected. This was definitely one of the high points of the collection.

Fading Quayle, Dancing Quayle by Charles Coleman Finlay: So, apparently Charles Coleman Finlay is smarter than me. The notes in the back of the book describe the story as being inspired by the works of "cognitive science philosophers." This term is new and sexy to me, so I'm going to use it as a pick-up line at bars and parties. I didn't really take anything away from the story. It was frantically paced and had a confusing narrative voice. Still, I gotta assume I'm too dumb to understand it.

Trouble by Mark McLaughlin: I loved this story. Seriously. Loved it.

Part of it is that I am a pretentious art guy who likes hanging out with a pretentious art people. McLaughlin gets the general tone of reminiscence and acrimony that would fit in well with that type of crowd. It's somewhat artificial, but he has enough gusto to pull it off. The story also has the most unique composition of any tale in the book, and I'm a big fan of genre writers breaking the traditional narrative format. Framing the tale as an interview allows the characterization to come to the foreground, and the tale ends with the satisfying, creepy end.

Naked Shall I Return by Tom Piccirilli: I liked the collegiate town feeling of the story and I liked the lead character's relationship with his immature roommate, but this story had too many people explaining stuff to me.

Falling Into Naught by Douglas W. Clark: Y'know, ever since (as far as I know) Joe R. Lansdale's On The Far Side of the Cadillac Desert With Dead Folks there's been a stream of pseudo-western zombie tales featuring lone tough guys wandering through a wasteland of violence, depravity, and sleazy zombie brothels/gladiator pits. I like these types of stories. They provide a more gung-ho counterpoint to the endless stream of existentialist angst that a lot of zombie tales apply with a trowel. This one was pretty entertaining, even forgiving the earnestly hokey final line.

Sitting With The Dead by Shane Stewart: A touching and tense story about a young man standing vigil over his grandmother's body, this was another favorite of mine. The notion of having cathartic moments with your dead relatives is a fairly unexplored idea among the zombie anthologies I've read and the leads have a great rapport with one another, particularly the dead grandma who finds a new honesty in death. This one would make a great stage play.

The Black Rose by Don D'Ammassa: This little tale of cowboys and curses is a little talky and a little pokey, but it's got a lot of great characters, a sexy femme fatale, and a razor-wielding madam with a heart of rattlesnake venom. This would have made a tremendously messed up episode of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.

Charlie's Hole by Jesse Bullington: My first impressions of Charlie's Hole was largely negative. It felt like the writer got a copy of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and wanted to copy the Vietnam-era nastiness without the artistic context. It started out unpleasant and forced, but redeemed itself when the characters went deep into the claustrophobic tunnels and encountered the creepy Lovecraftian sorcerer in the catacombs. There's some great horror set pieces and a fantastically gruesome ending. Overall, a win.

The Dead Kid by Darrell Schweitzer: This story also appeared in the Living Dead anthology. My review stands. Good stuff.

Brainburgers and Bile Shakes by Jim C. Hines: There's a lot wrong with this story. It's a big cocktease for one. It takes place in an amusement park where the living dead are shackled in bondage and the teased breakdown of order never happens. The lead character is an introverted nebbish whose appeal to his love interest is mystifying. Basically, nothing happens in particular. Still, I had a great time wandering around the amusement park with these two characters. They were sweet and sad and kinda charming. It gets a tentative thumbs up.

ZOMB, Inc. by J. Allen Thomas: Another incredibly fun popcorn story, the Kafka-esque struggles of a temp doing drudge work in a zombie-staff office until his brain is soft enough to eat completely rocks my socks off. The jokey impatience of the lead character's point of view is painfully familiar to anyone who has spent time in a cubicle farm. Post this on the company bulletin board and wait for the internal memos to circulate.

Life Sentence by David Dvorkin: So, help me out with something here. The criminal's plan was to have his organs removed, have his skin hardened with a chemical, be sent to space to mine precious minerals side by side with zombies, sneak said precious minerals past the guards (while naked), and sneak back in time for back alley surgery before his life supplies run out? What, the future had no armored cars to rob? This one lost me early.

Martin's Inferno by Tyler Sigman: Arr matey! Creature be fascinated by dark stories of nautical adventure! This story could have been handed to me inscribed on the flesh of a leper and I still would have found something nice to say about it. Fortunately I don't have to, as it was pretty danged good. Thar be pirates and treasure and curses and the walking deadskies, all told in a breezy, entertaining style. Definitely one of my guilty pleasures.

Memory Remains by Steve Eller: Being that zombies are dead and young writers love writing melodramatic stories of loss and Human Suffering, zombie stories occasionally get weighed down like leaky water balloons with capital-M Meaning. This one has a depth of feeling and sometimes gets cumbersome under the weight, but it does a pretty good job tying the character's rapidly desiccating body with the loss of his soul. I'd buy this story a beer, but I'd probably get bored if the conversation went on too long.

The Little Death of Mr. Phillips by J. Robert King: Easily the best story of the collection, this tale follows a Walter Mitty-esque insurance salesman as he applies his practical, unruffled mind to the problem of his zombification while pining for a pretty receptionist.

There's a ton of stuff to like in this story. Poor Mr. Phillips is such a sweet, compelling character, marching gamely toward his doom while trying to enjoy life a little. The story draws a lot of horror from the actual process of decay, something rarely touched in zombie fiction. Finally, it doesn't simply ape the zombie cliches. There's no desperate survivors trapped in a global apocalypse and the only thing threatening about zombie Mr. Phillips is the stench. The reader is instead treated to a story of love, loss, and missed potential, all capped by a beautifully written, poetic ending. Seek this one out.

The Hyphenated Spirit by Scot Noel: Oh my. Tea and crumpets. In the same way I'm a fan of piratical tales, I'm a sucker for high society aristocratic Britannia, especially when it focuses on conjoined twins and a zombie sibling. In this story, zombie-ism is an affliction left undiscussed in polite society, yet the relationship between the prim (if perverse) Apollonian half and her carnal Dionysian sibling eventually degenerates in a manner that would make monocles drop into champagne glasses. Everyone is so wonderfully well mannered and erudite and gloriously perverse!

Inheriting Red by Alexander Marsh Freed: One of the most unique and inventive zombie stories I've read, Inheriting Red is told from the point of view of the psychic entity controlling the zombie hordes, who sees their gruesome path of consumption as an act of love. I really liked the hive-mind's point of view, and her memories around her messianic brother were lyrical and lovely. This tale could easily have been expanded into a compelling novel.

Goddamn Redneck Surfer Zombies by Michael J. Jasper: First off, you can't lose with a title like that. Second, this story has that fun, unflappable tone of one of Joe R. Lansdale's tales. Third, it's genuinely funny. Forth, it has one of the best narrative POVs in the book. Fifth, it's called Goddamn Redneck Surfer Zombies. I'm gonna give this story to girls I have a crush on. If they like it, they're a keeper.

Night Shift by Rebecca Brock: Don't get me wrong, I liked this story on the aggregate. It's a solid, classic Romero-zombie siege yarn, with good writing and tense scares. The lead character, a relief worker at a juvenile care facility, is an absolute prick. He's vicious toward his charges, rude toward his coworkers, and eager to abandon the situation. Sure, he's got a pregnant wife to get home to, but he's such an unpleasant person that I was actively rooting for his family's annihilation. I gather the writer wanted to create a hard-bitten tough guy, but even tough guys gotta have something good about them.

Bright Angels by K.Z. Perry: I was a little skeptical of this story at first. The notion that people would 'adopt' dead children who'd been domesticated to mimic emotion struck me as a prime example of the uncanny valley theory in action. Still, when the orphanage lights go down and the reader gets a glimpse of what goes on behind the domestication, the story becomes tantalising. The first layer of this story is a little flabby, but the stuff under the skin is very enticing.

The Ethical Treatment of Meat by the awesomely-named Claude LaLumiƩre: The OTHER best story of the collection (I can have two dammit!) is ETM here. A charming little domestic farce between two gay zombies and the human boy they keep as a pet, the story works great on a satirical level. It's when you start paying attention to the details, start noticing how the human pets behave and how little his keepers can relate to him, then the story becomes genuinely terrifying. This was a fantastic story to end the book with, and I'll definitely keep an eye out for this guy's work in the future.

So yes, I'm very happy that I took a look at the anthology. It took me some winning over at first, but they got some interesting new writers telling really good stories. At some point in the future I'll write about my experiences running All Flesh but for now go check out this book. It's a bit tricky to run down, but it's definitely worth the hassle.

Rob Zombie's Halloween 2 Trailer

You've probably seen this by now. And, if you're like me, you've been to the forums and heard the endless bitching and complaining. Hobo Myers? Blaaaaah! Sheri Moon Zombie? Blooooh! Myers without his mask? Bluuuuuh!


Okay, I didn't actually like Rob Zombie's Halloween. While I'm not necessarily as dogmatic as the horror orthodoxy, I think the story he told didn't quite fit the the Shape (wokka wokka) of what I expect Halloween to be. I always hesitated joining the howling mob baying for his blood because I LIKE Zombie's enthusiasm for the medium and his willingness to go completely nuts. I hate the weird need horror fans have to tear into creators.

I'm not saying I don't agree with them on some level. I'm not saying there isn't stuff I've seen that makes me wince. But I'll give it a shot. Love 'em or hate 'em, I've never been able to dismiss a Rob Zombie movie.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Fangoria Weekend of Horrors 2009

(Sorry for the picture quality. Junky camera.)

Biggest lesson learned at the convention: if you're going to go to a seminar by an artist who has worked in a variety of media, don't do it in LA. The bulk of the questions from the audience will be about breaking into the industry. That's totally fine, everyone has hoop dreams, but the seminar was titled writing horror.

I keep alluding to this for I am the lord of allusions, but Clive Barker is one of my heroes. I love his versatility, I love the beauty of his prose, and I love how friendly and accessible he is to his fans. When I heard he was hosting a panel for aspiring horror writers, I booked my seminar ticket and flight immediately. It wasn't the urbane, tea-sipping conversation on the finer points of literature. It was still worth every cent I spent.

The seminar took place in a small, cheerless gray room. The Fangoria movie prop auction was going on next door, and we kept hearing amplified auctioneers and the cheering of crowds through the wall. Clive's voice was strained and raspy, even through the microphone, so he invited us to gather around him. It made for a really nice intimate conversation.

At one point in the seminar, the topic of working in television came up, specifically the limitations a creative person suffers when he's surrounded by 20 people telling him he's wrong. The conversation swung to the shows Heroes and Lost. I mentioned that the problem with the shows is that they mistake poor story control for deliberate enigma. He smiled and asked me to repeat it into his microphone, and continued on the topic using my humble contribution. It was definitely a high point. I got to ask my two questions, I got a bunch of memorable quotes, and I left feeling inspired and energized. It was an incredible experience.

It's a good thing that I had that, because there honestly wasn't a whole lot to do.

I've been to dozens of conventions in my life. I go to four or five a year. They're always a blast, but the ones I tend to go to are either pop culture shows with large crowds and tons of events (Wondercon, San Diego Comic Con) or gaming conventions (Kublacon) where there's always a pick-up game going on somewhere. Here, the panels I cared about were few and far between, I didn't necessarily feel like spending the con in the movie room, and one can only wander through the dealer room so many times. It probably didn't help that the show was held at the LA Convention Center. The sheer size of the place dwarfed the convention, so you always felt like it was a tiny show.

I did get to meet a ton of awesome people. Most of you are reading this now, so give me a shout out. I tried tracking down fellow horror blogger Dragonmanes but no one in the booths I haunted knew who he was. Sorry, brother.

Anyway, there was a big push by Anchor Bay for their upcoming slasher flick Laid To Rest, the 20th anniversary box set release of Hellraiser, and an upcoming movie by director Paul Solet called Grace. The idea, on first pass, could wander into the blighted land of the distasteful, but the stuff I've seen was remarkably well-shot and engaging. I'm cautiously optimistic this one.

The dealer room was nice enough, but I didn't get nearly the amount of schwag I planned on coming home with. There were tons of generic goth-y type spooky merch and endless variations on the witty-zombie tee-shirt thing, both items I'm kinda sick of. The one piece of memorabilia I desperately wanted to pick up was a Lament Configuration. I figured this wouldn't be a challenge, considering the Hellraiser 20th Anniversary panel was going on, but none of the vendors had one. Come on, guys. This was a no-brainer.

The dealer room's stuff also tended to emphasize the more extreme end of the horror spectrum, where suspense and subtlety takes a backseat to vomit and ropes of intestines uncurling from a wound. I see stuff like that and sometimes I wonder just how well I actually fit in with the horror community. When it comes to my friends and the people I work with, I come off like the Marquis De Sade, but I read stuff like this and I feel positively genteel and dainty. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a good mischievous cackle, but ugly for ugly's sake quickly becomes unpleasant. If I want to raise my falutin' high, I'd say I'm keen on the macabre and not the grotesque.

Anyway, burnout aside, I got a chance to meet writers, bloggers, editors, actors, directors, documentarians, and other people I promised to keep in contact with. For those of you reading this and wondering why I haven't written to you, I apologize. I work for Major Video Game Publisher and their Big New Game is running up to an important deadline. I have to do all my blogging in times that aren't as readily available these days. Give me a weekend and I'll get back to all of y'alls.

One of the highlights of the convention was the horror website panel, where representatives from Dread Central, Arrow in the Head, FearNet, Fangoria, and other sites all sat down for a round table discussions on the ins and outs of internet horror journalism. Aside from being a hilariously inspiring, martini-soaked chat about horror fandom, the panel taught me a lesson worth a grand to learn: don't get too close to your subject matter.

The nice thing about being a geek is that you have access to your idols, and that's doubly true in the horror world. If you like an author or an actor or a director you will likely have an opportunity to meet them face-to-face at a convention. On one hand it's tremendously inspirational, but it can also be a burden when you're trying to evaluate the merit of a new genre work. The line between creator and audience is very thin in horror and a lot of the people on the panel spoke of how difficult it was to write fair reviews against people they came to regard as friends.

I'm not a big fan of internet forum negativity. Even when I don't like a work, I recognize the effort and enthusiasm it took to produce it. I feel artists should be encouraged and, with a few exceptions, I do my best not to bully or trash a person's work. However, I need to be honest about my opinions and perceptions and I can't do that if I have any kind of relationship with the creators of the work. I met a bunch of people at the con who had projects coming out. I got to hang out with them and absorb their enthusiasm by osmosis. Do you think I want to then go and write a bad review?

People go to the major blogs for scoops on upcoming projects, and publicists don't like giving exclusives to people who trash their work. I'm not bloody-disgusting. I don't have access to publicists and studio marketing reps. Alls I have is my love, my fished-from-the-internet, and my little typey-typey words. I'll whip those ingredients into a tasty stew if you're willing to give my cooking a try.

Anyway, it was a damn fun con. I got some other neat stories, like paying for Doug Bradley and Ashley Lawrence's breakfast, the surreal experience of arriving in the middle of a Britney Spears show, standing in the entry line behind deceased serial killer Ed Gein, winning a Masters of Horror director chair, seeing TCM's Marilyn Burns and TCM2's Caroline Williams having a private moment long after the show ended, watching Clive Barker and Ashley Williams pretend to fall asleep at the Hellraiser panel as Doug Bradley talked at length about his upcoming projects. Lotta good stuff there, but this has already run waaaaaay too long. As for me, I've got some other good stuff in the works coming up. Thank you for reading my humble efforts. You guys remind me my life ain't just about going to work.

Oh, also, if you decide you're going to the convention and you're planning on getting the fancy schmancy gold pass in order to get into the Vampire Ball, don't bother. The stars were only there for a few minutes, I was one of four people in costume, and they closed the private room early and everyone migrated to the adjacent bar that anyone could get into. If it wasn't for the pleasantly strong whiskey sours and the lovely company, I'd have had half a mind to complain.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Twilight Zone: The Encounter

Watching the Twilight Zone movie recently, I got a hankerin' to revisit the Zone again. Watched a few mediocre episodes before stumbling upon the controversial The Encounter, starring future Trekker George Takei. I've managed to locate the entire tale online, and parts one through three are spaced in this post.

The story takes place in an attic cluttered with relics from the Allied island-hopping campaign through the Pacific. A Japanese-American gardener comes to the man's house to solicit work, but winds up trapped in the attic with the former Marine. Secrets spill forth, tempers rise, and shit, as the Bard said, gets real.

Holy crap this was a good episode. The entire thing takes place in a claustrophobic setting and the entire piece is carried by the skills of the two actors. They boil at each other, the ex-marine taking passive-aggressive swipes at his guest while pleading for his company, the Japanese-American struggling to be polite and suppress his lifetime of fury. These characters, though somewhat antiquated in their presentation, still weave a fascinating tale. This would make one helluva stage play.

One of the things I wanted to examine further is the characterization of Neville Brand's Fenton, the lonely ex-marine condemned to his memories and his bitterness. I work in the video game industry and it always fascinates me how we sell memories of World War 2. It's the clean war, the "good" war, the war free of moral ambiguity. Our enemies wore sinister colors and created factories of murder so fighting them was an easy choice. Sure, we tell tales like Saving Private Ryan overladen with Meaning and Narration, but even these have become sorts of cliches. The FPSs I've played set in the conflict give their perfunctory nods to the whole war-is-hell thing before settling in to the simple joy of killing Nazis.

Fenton fought the good war face-to-face and came back ruined. He's an embittered alcoholic who can't keep a relationship going, can't keep his job, and surrounds himself with relics he seems to hold contempt for. Based on the stories he tells, he seems to have been an ideal soldier, but the experience did tremendous damage to his psyche. We rarely see this sort of story told, especially around our most romanticized conflict, and it's absolutely engaging.

Takei's Arthur (Taro) Takamori fares somewhat less well in the story. His abrupt revelation and equally abrupt confession rings a little false, especially given the Calculon-level of ACTING that the monologues demand of him. The tale seems to want to shoehorn him as the outsider, as the non-American, so that he can play the doomed role the attic requires of him. He's at his best when he gets frustrated and aggressive. We see that Takamori is a man who has become very tired of dealing with a culture that still considers him an enemy.

I am of mixed feelings as to the ending. Clearly, something supernatural is going on in that attic, with the mysterious locked door and the inscription on the old samurai sword testifying to the presence of the Dark Gods of Narrative. I wanted the characters to grow beyond their animosity, especially since both are so clearly striving to make some kind of connection, but the Twilight Zone is a very cruel place. Takamori's tale ends in a pretty ridiculous manner, which somewhat taints the tale, but the final shot of the door is genuinely chilling.

This episode touched a whole lotta hot buttons for people. On one side, the show was aired during the slow escalation into Vietnam, and the notion of portraying Asians as human beings didn't sit too well with some people. On the other hand, Takei's character was the American-born son of a man who assisted the Japanese in their assault on Pearl Harbor. To the best of my recollection, no evidence exists that anyone of Japanese descent acted as saboteurs for the Japanese government. Still, the story is a great, character-driven horror piece about racism, secrets, and the psychological cost of war.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dead Space

I had a lot of fun playing Dead Space.

The horror genre works well in video games. You stop being a passive observer. Suddenly you're in the bad place, running low on health, with something terrible chasing you. Dead Space is like that. Only this time the bad place is a space ship. And you've got a chainsaw.

So it's not particularly subtle. American games rely on the illusion of competence, so you're not going to be some frightened little girl with a camera, like in the Fatal Frame series. No, you're gonna be some heavily armed tank, wading through the darkness with a selection of high-tech power tools at your side.

The game's combat-heavy emphasis is on "strategic dismemberment." As an engineer responding to a distress call from the mining ship USG Ishimura, you pick up quite an array of nasty power tools. You're gonna need 'em, too. The Necromorphs, horribly insectile distortions of human remains, can't be killed by the traditional FPS shots to the chest. No, you gotta blast their limbs off or they're gonna keep coming after you, screeching and spitting all the while.

Beyond that, you get to do fun futuristic engineering puzzles. There are several environments in the game that are zero gravity and a few breathtaking sequences out in space. Your power suit comes equipped with a stasis projector and a kinetic lift, allowing you to slow down and manipulate objects. I had a lot of fun messing around with the monsters and the environment. I'd like to sound cool and jump on the "the puzzles were too easy" bandwagon, but I appreciated that it didn't take a trip to the strategy guide to figure anything out.

Simply put, the game is fun to play. A really good story will sometimes carry me across the chasm of mediocre gameplay, but if I can interface with the game smoothly, if I can be sucked into the world, the game is a winner. Dead Space was really smooth. I didn't feel like I was getting dicked around by bad controls, I didn't feel like dangerous threats were being obscured by bad camera angles, and I had a lot of fun exploring the depths of the Ishimura.

As to the stuff I didn't like, your fellow crew mates, Token Gruff Black NCO and Token Crabby Scientist with the Big Rack, are genuinely unpleasant people. When they aren't shrilly arguing with each other, they're barking orders at you. There's not much going on with the game's story beyond "go there, repair this." About 90% of the game's levels start with a radio call from TCSwtBR telling you that something needs to be fixed, but you need to jump through a couple more hoops to do it. After awhile, you want your character to grab the mic and scream "Hey, why don't you come down and do some of these stupid fetch quests yourself!" Needless to say, one of them winds up betraying you.

The whole Unitology thing is kinda goofy. Sure, you get big creepy rooms where ritual suicides have taken place, but the whole thing kinda smacks of obvious allusions to Scientology. If it were actually bringing issues of faith and blind allegiance into question that would have been interesting, but it's just used as a window dressing for the game, something to supply whispered chants and spooky runes in the dark hallways of the Ishimura.

Dead Space also relies almost exclusively on my least favorite scare tactic: the soundtrack-spike jump scare. The survival horror games I grew up with relied on a certain enforced vulnerability. You were afraid because you weren't much of a match against the monsters you faced so your best bet was to hide from the small stuff, figure out the puzzles, and take down the big stuff quickly before it drained your painfully limited medical supplies. Dead Space is all about combat and dismemberment, which isn't exactly fertile ground for tension to grow. Instead, you get a bunch of screeching Necromorphs jumping at you from ceilings and air vents. It's not particularly subtle but it works well enough, and the sound design for the creatures are genuinely creepy. Also, for all my griping about cheap jump scares, the game's final cut scene ends with one of the scariest jump scenes I've encountered in awhile.

Finally, the "twist ending" didn't make a lot of sense. Spoiler city here, but if the hive mind is trying to manipulate you into returning the marker, why is it sending all its creatures out to kill you? Is the Marker a seperate, sentient entity, unattached to the hive mind? Is the hive mind easily confused and cranky? Walk me through this, please?

Don't take the negatives too seriously. I am a hater, after all. In the end, Dead Space was pretty darn cool. It plays like the video game equivalent of House on Haunted Hill: completely obvious and lunatic and a whole lot of popcorn-chompin' fun.

For those of you video game devotees, I was going to write a long essay on the decline of the survival horror genre, but someone else already beat me to it. They did it better, too. Check out Leigh Alexander's incredible kotaku article here.

The new Freddy Krueger iiiisss....

the dude who played Rorschach in Watchmen.

Okay, I know this was already broken by the fine folks at bloody-disgusting a week ago. People generally seem satisfied with the selection and I'm inclined to agree with them. I was genuinely worried they'd turn Freddy into some kinda hulking wrestler-type.

Anyway, Platinum Dunes producer Brad Fuller posted an entry in his blog commenting on the casting. I kinda pity the guy. Horror fans are notorious for getting weird around the subject of remakes and I can only imagine the verbal shitstorm he gets from crackpots about every decision they make. I liked the TCM and Friday the 13th remake, flaws and all. I trust they're gonna do a decent job with this one.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Prom Night

Man, I was totally ready to defend Prom Night.

Even before the movie came out, the "hardcore" horror community was trashing it. "Man, fuck PG-13 horror! There's no blood or tits or anything in it! This is excluding us! And it's not even related to the original! Raaawwrrr!"

First off, not to assault sacred cows here, but the original movie wasn't all that good. Granted, it's been a long time since I've seen it, but I remember a whole lotta nuthin' happening, with some dancing footage thrown in to pad out the running time. It's not like we're losing a lot in translation.

Second, not every goddamn horror movie has to be targeted to the hardcore market. The target audience of Prom Night is clearly teenagers, particularly teenage girls. The things that are going to affect 'em are significantly different than what's gonna turn Dark Forum Lord Vivisection's crank. People are scared by shit they can relate to. People are titillated by buckets of blood. There is a difference, yo.

I was interested in the fact that Prom Night's killer was an older stalker that the victim had a previous relationship with. Having hung out with sexual crisis councilors before, I know that there are some fears resonate strongly with women, particularly fears of violent, obsessive men. There are a lot of men who can't/won't relate to that experience. I recognized that this movie needed to be seen in the context of its target audience. I was ready to watch the movie from the eyes of a teenage girl.

So, like I said, I was ready to spring to Prom Night's defense. Too bad the movie sucked.

The fundamental problem is that the movie is neither particularly interesting nor particularly scary. The filmmakers shoot the movie like one of those MTV reality shows, so the glitz of the world's most expensive prom overshadows the actual scares. The camera is good at mimicking the voyeuristic gaze of the stalker, but there is an almost willful ineptitude at building and maintaining tension. I counted not one, not two, but THREE separate instances where a character stepped into frame behind the lead, the music spiked, and the lead said "You scared me." That's not even trying, guys.

The characterization is pretty inconsistent. For a supposedly traumatized girl, Donna comes off as pretty unfazed. She wanders off into darkened suites on her own, doesn't obsessively check all potential dangers, and returns to the hotel after being evacuated to pick up an heirloom. Jonathan Schaech does a good job as the movie's villain, but the movie is somewhat ambivalent on what kind of monster he'll be. Is he a silent, faceless slasher movie butcher? Is he a feral, obsessed stalker? They keep coming teasingly close to making a real character out of him, but then they pull back and have him do typical slasher shit. There's no reason for him to kill Donna's friends but he goes through them like a buzzsaw through a flesh tree.

Look, I'm not against PG-13 horror. The Ring was PG-13 and that scared the crap out of me. I am against stupid, and watching two hours of this movie was like being hit upside the head with concentrated mediocrity. Horror filmmakers, there are some meat on these bones. Do something with it.

Oh, for what it's worth, I really liked the poster. If only it could have been attached to the movie I wanted this to be.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Twilight Zone Movie

When I was a kid, the Twilight Zone scared the crap out of me.

Aside from being masters of the chilling final line/image, there was something sinister about the notion that you could be going along, living your buttoned-down fifties life, and suddenly the Dark Gods of Narrative decide to hit you upside the head with the irony stick. Plus, considering the climate and the technology, they were forced to rely on actual storytelling and imagination instead of gore and cliches. Good stuff.

Anyway, I thought I'd give the Twilight Zone movie a spin. It's been awhile, y'know? Time to go visit an old friend.

I liked the really cool back-and-forth patter in the opening story between the driver and his demonic passenger. The doomed driver and his mysterious passenger are clearly old friends, and their exchange feels very natural as it descends into very creepy territory.

As to the first full tale, the sad saga of a racist confronted with oppression through history, made notorious by the death of actor Vic Morrow and two children in an on-set accident, it's pretty good but there's something missing. There's always been a strong moralistic thread running through The Twilight Zone. Characters are supposed to start ignorant and come to wisdom, usually at a horrible cost. I never got the sense that Vic Morrow's frustrated salesman actually grew as a person. He got jerked around a bunch, then he got dragged off to the concentration camp. Still, it's well shot and has that classic episode feel.

The second one, by Steven Spielberg, bugged the living crap out of me. Yeah, I know,
Twilight Zone isn't all gloom and doom and the Dark Gods of Narrative can sometimes turn a kind hand, but this was really too much. It's pretty much every horrible saccharine thing Spielberg is known for, all awkward Hallmark-card sentimentality wrapped up in goofy morals and fluttery wind instruments. The only time the story affected me was when the grumpy old coot who refused to join the others begged to be set free. That was pretty good. Everything else, meh.

Story three, about the kid with the freaky cartoon powers, is probably the best original story in the movie. It's been copied and parodied a thousand times since, but the original still holds a lot of freak-the-shit-outta-me, from the creepy forced cheer of the family to the mouthless girl alone in the room to the horrible cartoon images the kid conjures up. It's a really, really good piece of horror filmmaking. My only quibble is with the ending, which takes a much happier tone than situation would logically warrant. Anthony has clearly used his powers kill before, and the notion that he was just waiting for someone to teach him is a bit absurd. Sure, he rides off into the sunrise with his new teacher but the second she crosses Anthony, he's going to feed him to a cartoon werewolf.

The last story...oooh. I hate flying. I don't like being up high, turbulence terrifies me, and every time I get near an airport I have a minor panic attack. Some people think John Lithgow is overacting to the point of comedy, but I am totally on board with the level of claustrophobic panic Lithgow displays. Plus, I like the way they shot the creature. It's a vague shape, the wind and storms buffeting it around as it goes about it's gruesome work. Yeah. Good stuff.

Anyway, there ya go. Good stuff on this one. If you see one anthology horror/sci-fi movie based on a TV show from the early sixties, make it this one.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Zen Of Zombie: Better Living Through the Undead

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, just across the bridge from Marin County. For those of you with unaligned chakras, Marin County is the local epicenter for the self-indulgent New Age movement. New Age stuff is a convenient way for middle aged, dissatisfied, affluent people to feel good about themselves without actually taking responsibility for how their lives turned out. My old man was really into this stuff, and I can't tell you how much Deepak Chopra/energy crystals/communication coaches/sweat lodge/rebirthing ceremonies I've been exposed to. It's probably why I turned out so ornery and negative.

Anyway, I've probably flipped through my fair share of self-help books in my time and they all seem to run along the same lines: stop comparing yourself to other people, understand that you have value, banish negativity, and visualize your goals with an 'active mind.' I've heard people visualize themselves as spiritual travellers, power animals, reborn children, and confident sexual dynamos. But finding a path to self-improvement by visualizing yourself as a flesh-hungry zombie? That's a new one.

The Zen of Zombie finally targets the niche market in horror-themed self improvement. With a series of simple lessons, the reader will transform from an indecisive, vacillating wimp to a confident, straight-shooting undead hero.

All right, this book is a joke. And a pretty funny one, too.

I like the way Scott Kenemore writes. He's got a sense of humor and gift for absurd one-liners that appeals to my Simpsons-quoting ass. In his chapter on the insecurity surrounding human's desperate quest for love, he gives us this chestnut:

You never see zombies lying or prevaricating because they don't feel "worthy" of someone's brain. Doesn't make much sense, does it? A zombie knows he (or she) is good enough just as God (or the voodoo priest, or the nerve reagent) made him. A zombie says, "Here I am. I can only be myself. Take me as I am. Give me your brain."

It's not perfect. Like most gimmick books you find in the impulse purchase stands, it's a little content-light. You'll finish this one in two trips to the can. Sometimes the funny word play that highlights the book gets lost as the author slips too deep into referential parody. But in the final analysis I had a good time, I learned some valuable lessons, and I'm ready to put my new and improved zombified outlook to the test.

Check out author Scott Kenemore's blog here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Midnight Meat Train

I'm not a huge fan of getting sick and missing work but in the last two days I've played through eight levels of Dead Space, started reading Book of More Flesh, and watched both Session 9 and The Midnight Meat Train. It's been a pretty good sick week for this horror fan.

Anyway, MMT. Been looking forward to this one, as I mentioned earlier this year. I'm a big fan of the original short story and the hype around this movie has been pretty intense, what with all the drama around its release. I don't necessarily get the politics or the logic behind dumping the movie in favor of The Strangers, but I think people will seek this one out and it will have a life of its own.

MMT is about a photographer who finds himself obsessed with a serial killer who butchers the last passengers on the late trains leaving NYC. What starts as a game of cat-and-mouse becomes a tale of conspiracy, corruption, and the dark heart of the greatest metropolis of the country. I can get behind that ideal. New York City stole my girlfriend a couple of months ago. Of course it's secretly infested with demons.

Maybe it's the Theraful currently packed into my skull, but it's proving difficult to write a linear, coherent review on this one. So what I'm gonna do is I'm gonna load all my opinions in a shotgun, take careful aim at this blogadoo, and fire. Maybe something will stick.

I liked the photographer and his girlfriend. I liked the way, again, they're not stupid teenagers who wandered into something bigger than they can handle. I bought into their relationship, into their comfortable sexuality, and into all that weird secret language people develop when they've been together for a long time. The scene where she tries to turn him away from the path by undressing for his camera is absolutely heartbreaking.

I liked the fact that they incorporated the photographer's creative drive into the story. Director Ryuhei Kitamura did a great job bringing the audience into Leon's POV. I felt for him when his work got rejected, I understood the nervous itch he felt when he walked into the city at night, and I've had awkward conversations with very literal-minded people where I tried to explain the compulsion I've had to create and fallen silent, much like the scene where he goes to the (apparently) one police detective in the city. It's no wonder Leon makes Mahogany the subject for his study. The man moves through the city with purpose.

I liked the cold look of the movie. I loved the beautiful killing coldness of the stainless steel train station interiors. I loved the shadowed corridors of Mahogany's home and the isolating austerity of the art gallery. I really liked the clever way the gore was used in the movie, from the artfully prophetic blood spray to the intense POV murder. I loved the ending fight at the rear of the train, which was easily one of the most awesome fight scenes in horror. It's a genuinely beautiful film, make by someone with a strong command of the medium. Hopefully Kitamura hasn't been soured by the experience of working in the American film industry and we get more awesome genre work from him.

I like Mahogany. He was a great character in the story and he's really come to life in the movie. We see in the way he dresses and the manner he carries himself that he is first and foremost a professional. There's something hesitant and lonely going on in his head, but it doesn't diminish his effectiveness as a monster. The horrible conspiracy at the root of Mahogany's grim work is kept tantalizingly mysterious, and I hope Barker keeps to his promise to continue the story behind the secret masters at the end of the train line.

As to the stuff I didn't like, there was no sane reason for Maya and Jurgis to sneak into Mahogany's apartment. They knew he was a killer, they had proof to take to the police, and yet they chose to wander inside his den in search of Leon's camera. It was a tense scene, but it was so illogical it lost me.

Leon also descended into obsession too quickly. I suppose a case could be made that it wasn't entirely natural, that the city chose him for the role of watcher, but this notion wasn't entirely played up in the story. Either that or I've still got Session 9 on the brain, where the notion of external forces influencing behavior is much more obvious to the story.

Finally, the movie styles itself as a sort of detective yard. While we don't know the ends to which Mahogany plies his trade until the story's close, the movie has the characters fixated on his actions and not the result. The audience already knows what Mahogany is doing. We want to know why. Having the heroes chase after things the audience already knows is redundant and slows the pacing down considerably.

Quibbles. I really like the movie. If it had a proper studio advertising push behind it, it would have been a big hit. Creature wants more. Make it happen.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Session 9

I avoided Session 9 for the same reason I avoid women: I really can't bear to fall in love again.

This is one of those flicks people talk about with wide, wary eyes. They tell you that Session 9 doesn't mess around. It doesn't do cheap jump scares and over-the-top gore effects and characters announcing their motivations in hackneyed screenwriter-exposition prose. It's a movie that's out to fuck you up and the kind of minds that would put something like this together lives somewhere deep in the dark.

The kind of movies I've been watching lately are popcorn. They play by the rules, they tell their little campfire tales, and you go home essentially unaffected. I can write about those because they're easy dates. I didn't want the emotional commitment of engaging in something really, really good.

The story is simple enough: A group of asbestos cleaners take a job cleaning the Danvers Mental Institution. As the week drags on the characters get bound up in despair and madness until shit goes down. The movie recalls Kubrick's interpretation of The Shining in its use of days as narrative framing devices, the long claustrophobic hallways, and the wide shots of cavernous rooms that dwarf the characters. Honestly, the location does half the work for the directors. Anyone who has ever gone urban spelunking knows how dreadfully silent abandoned institutions can be.

It's the characters that really make the movie sizzle. Without any jump scares or obvious gore, the horror has to come from the people trapped in the house. I'm a big believer that the best haunted house movies work because the characters are just as haunted as the places they visit. The four middle-aged men and young trainee who take the renovation job aren't wisecracking, beautiful post-teens off the assembly line, but real blue-collar men whose lives lead them into a dangerous line of work and who engage with each other in practical, honest terms. We rarely get to spend time with characters this rich and it's a rewarding experience. It passes my high bar for horror characterization, which is that you can remove the horror elements and tell these character's story as an engaging drama. Very few horror movies, even the classics, can stand up to that scrutiny.

After the movie was over, my brain was on fire. I wanted to make out with this movie. I wanted to awkwardly fumble around under its clothes, I wanted to push myself through its skin and be a part of it. I want to share it with my friends, if only to creep the hell out of them.

Session 9 is absolutely my kind of movie. It plays fair, it avoids any obvious genre cliches, it's shot with macabre artistry, it creates characters you fall in love with, and it descends into absolute, nihilistic horror without apologizing or cracking jokes. Do this one right. Watch it alone in the dark.

As for me, I'm gonna check out director Brad Anderson's contribution to the Masters of Horror series, Sounds Like. Also, if you're keen on asylum-based horror, read Shadows in the Asylum, which stands as one of my favorite horror books of all time. More on this one later.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Fangoria Weekend of Horror L.A.

On to happier topics:

I'm going to be attending the Fangoria Weekend of Horror in Los Annnngelez this month. I've been going to these sporadically since I was a kid and these have always been a lot of fun. It's been a bumpy couple of months in old Creature's personal life, and I'm really looking forward to kicking back, relaxing, and chucking away my hard-earned money on all kindsa memorabilia. If I can remain sober and responsible enough, I intend to blog from the show floor.

If you are gonna be there, drop me a line. Maybe we'll do some sorta meetup thing.

Horror and the real world.

"At best you can hold death at bay, you can pretend it isn't there; but to deny it totally is a sickness. And I think that horror fiction is one of the ways to approach these problems, and, perversely perhaps, to enjoy a vicarious confrontation with them." -Clive Barker
There's horror and then there's HORROR.

A few days ago, while driving to the showing of Alien Trespass, I found myself stuck in traffic. This wasn't particularly surprising, as it was rush hour and San Francisco traffic can be brutal. But we were parked on that off-ramp for a long time and highway patrol cruisers kept whizzing by with clear urgency. Eventually we got detoured to an exit that brought us an elevated view of the blockage. There were smashed vehicles all over the place. A tanker truck had blown its rear compartment. A medical helicopter had landed on the freeway and was preparing to take off with victims. Bodies were being loaded onto an ambulance while officers were busy interviewing crying witnesses.

It was, to put it mildly, surreal. The irony that I was going off to see simulated versions of this sort of thing wasn't lost on me.

Perhaps I shouldn't spend too much time contemplating why I like horror movies. Perhaps its one of those touchy points of my psychology that would only wig me out if I looked at it too closely. I know I've covered this subject before, but if you really want to see pure, hopeless, despair-ridden horror, all you really have to do is live your life and pay attention.

I think the Clive Barker quote is pretty good. We all know that at some point in our lives the curtain is gonna fall, the stage lights will be shut off, and we're all gonna wind up in the dark. I think horror fiction, be it movies/music/stories/whatevs is a way for us to dip our toes in that water, to twist the notion around like a Rubik's cube and eventually set it down. That's all fine and good for the people who dip into that well from time to time, the mobs of teenagers who descend on the multiplexes when Topless Chicks Get Slaughtered pt. 8 comes out. But what about those of us who keep coming back to those foetid pools over and over again?

I have always had a fascination with the quote-dark-unquote side of life. I likes my stories grim and creepy. But when I go to horror conventions and see a bunch of serial killer memorabilia or overhear a couple of kids talk about how they would have done Columbine better, I understand that there's a line.

I started this blog because I wanted to create a venue I can comfortably communicate in. When I started going to the horror community sites I encountered a lot of misogyny, a lot of homophobia, and a lot of people confusing reality with fantasy. Sure, I probably shouldn't take the dumb stuff kids say online too seriously, but I sometimes think the anonymity of the Internet makes it easier to stir the sediment at the bottom of the soul.

Without getting too deep into the back story of the Creature, I got an opportunity, during the course of my strange journeys, to see the real thing firsthand. I think, on some level, that my lifetime of watching Tom Savini's make up effects would prepare me for the real world. It didn't. The two have very little to do with one another. The one thing that was really ground into me from the whole experience was plain old human empathy. To whit: we're all stuck on this rock. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. There's one rule, goddamnit, and that's to be kind.

It's easy for the weak and the wounded among my tribe, when given a choice to be an awkward angel or a powerful monster, to choose the latter. I've wandered down that dark path a time or two myself. But horror fiction involves characters. Really real life capital-H Horror involves people.

We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones. -Stephen King
Ultimately, horror fiction is safe. It's not going to hurt you, it's not going to follow you home and murder you in your sleep, and it's not going to make you into a killer, unless you bring serious damage with you in the first place. Real horror is the excrement of existence. It's the unexplained lump, the phone call late at night, the unexpected fire, and all the other agonies of life. No artist, no matter how twisted, can inoculate their audience against that kind of misery. It's the tidal wave waiting to wash away our sand castles, but we take what we can from it, wrap it up in artistry, and call it horror.

Make of that what you will.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Alien Trespass

Before I get started, I gotta say that I'm never going to another free screening in San Francisco. I get that this isn't exactly a big movie, but please don't give away free ticket passes at the local homeless shelter. Dudes were bringing in their bindles to the theater and I had the dubious pleasure of smelling a lot of pee and horrible body odor throughout the movie.


My first reaction after the lights went up was "How the hell am I gonna write about this." I like fifties stuff, I have a soft spot for retro kitsch, and I absolutely want more of these kinds of movies to be produced. It's probably why I'm so excited about Monsters Vs. Aliens. However, this movie is trying too hard to be a cult classic. As my faithful co-watcher hater#1 pointed out, you can't set out to make a cult movie. It has to be an organic process of something quirky finding a loyal audience. You try to make something deliberately quirky and it becomes self-aware and awkward.

Having said that, I really dug the relationships between the alien Marshall and the bored waitress with the big dreams. Eric McCormack did a heckuva job in his dual role as the doctor and the alien who inhabits his body and I liked his weird way of looking out at the world. Jenni Baird worked as the small town dreamer stuck in a dead end life. She brought the fifties nostalgia element without being corny, and when the chips were down she brought moxie to her salt-armed alien fighter. If the movie paid more attention to this type of character development and less time being deliberately hokey I think I would have enjoyed the movie more.

So, yeah, go see it. It's cute. It deserves a pat on the head. Points also go out to Robert Patrick, who plays a really sleazy, really fun crumb bum, and to the girl who played the biggest killjoy girlfriend I've ever seen in a movie. "No, I don't wanna make out. No, I don't wanna go up the big scary hill. No, I don't wanna have a soda. No, I don't wanna see a monster movie." Boo on her, yay on the actress.

Side note: I get that this movie is in a very small town and all, but everything I know from my fifties era rumble movies tells me that no greaser would ever hang out with a preppy. It's like Tom and Jerry buddying around, solving mysteries. It ain't gonna happen.