Saturday, November 16, 2013

I Saw the Devil

So here's the fucked up thing about I Saw The Devil.

It's a film about how ultimately dehumanizing and unsatisfying vengeance can be. The movie is a revenge story through-and-through, and revenge stories exist to empower the powerless through fiction. Bad things happen in life and our sense of order demands that someone be punished for it. It's a nice power fantasy and most revenge films feature an average man empowered by rage.

Kyung-chul, the serial killer who murdered Soo-hyun's pregnant fiance, is about as evil as they come. He spends the entire movie kidnapping, raping, and murdering women. His only friend is a cannibal who invades homes and carves up the inhabitants for supper. They're both shabby and unattractive men, though Kyung-chul approaches his work with a steely eyed, world-weary assertiveness that's undeniably compelling to watch. They're both evil men but they're not quite devils. There's something petty and pathetic about them that puts me in the mind of something I read this week: "Most things that seem satanic or malevolent are really just wretchedness and frailty that’ve been allowed to put on muscle."   

Neither murderers have a chance against Soo-hyun. Soo-hyun is the perfect human agent of vengeance. Young, handsome, highly-trained, and brutal, Soo-hyun is basically a Korean Jason Bourne. After his fiancee's body is found at the bottom of a river (in one of the most chilling search-team scenes I've ever seen), Soo-hyun steals some spy gadgets from his office, takes a two-week vacation, and goes hunting. With the help of his fiancee's father, a former police commissioner, he quickly tracks down his fiancee's killer. The rest of the game is a brutal game of cat and mouse between the serial killer and the super agent. Soo-hyun refuses to turn his prey over to the police, preferring to prolong his quarry's torment, and Kyung-chul descends into depravity when faced by an opponent who outclasses him in every way.

This movie had been sitting in my Netflix queue for awhile because I felt like I could figure out how it would end from the synopsis: Soo-hyun would descend into Kyung-chul's level until the difference between the two men was almost nil. While Soo-hyun's revenge does eventually barrel over innocent people, the story is never that trite or obvious. No satisfying revenge can really be taken against Kyung-chul anyway. Soo-hyun can cause horrific physical pain to Kyung-chul (and some of his attacks run close to torture porn) but the effect is similar to Batman beating up the Joker in the interrogation room: a guy as crazy as Kyung-chul is eventually going to disconnect from what's happening to him and all you're left with is cutting flesh. Even torturing Kyung-chul inside his murder room fails to stir any empathy for his victims. Instead he goads Soo-hyun to kill him and treats Soo-hyun like he's wasting Kyung-chul's time.

So the film's title doesn't refer to Kyung-chul. Kyung-chul is essentially a selfish, ignorant creature of the id. The devil in the title is the realization that you can burn your entire life down to gain the object of your obsession and have it mean absolutely nothing. The movie ends without closure and with a sense of loss that's almost crippling. While researching this blog post, I came across the perfect one-sentence review for the film: "There is all the violent mayhem, for certain, but the thing that sets I Saw the Devil apart is its undercurrent of real emotion and how unrelentingly sad it can be."  

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Man of Tai Chi

I've been thinking a lot about the devil lately.

I've never been a big fan of Christian-based horror fiction because it tends to make horror punitive, but I love the idea of the Devil. I love the idea of a monster that seduces and corrupts rather than simply causing havoc. It's subtle and more fraught with tension. Any psycho can stick a knife into someone, but it takes a special kind of monster to take your spirit. How many pieces of yourself can you give away before you're no longer you?

As cool as the idea is, the payoff never worked for me. There's a passage in Neil Gaiman's Sandman: Seasons of Mist storyline where the devil bemoans the ideas people have that he goes around collecting souls like a fishwife at market. A soul is too abstract and meaningless of a prize. The devil needs something concrete.

In Man of Tai Chi, the amazing martial arts film from Keanu Reeves, there's a moment when Keanu Reeves's sinister manipulator Donaka Mark is watching surveillance footage of Tiger Chen. He focused the camera on Chen's face, smiles, and says, "innocence." It's a chilling moment. Up until that point I'd assumed Keanu Reeves was a garden variety crime boss whose main business involved hosting deadly fights for rich perverts. The second he targets something as ephemeral as innocence he becomes something darker and more menacing.

Tiger Chen certainly doesn't lack for innocence. When I first saw the trailer, I wasn't sure I'd buy the actor as an action star. His body is too slight and he looked more like a teenager than a stern kung-fu warrior. He starts the movie with a sort of naive impatience. He's admirably centered in the face of his thankless delivery job, he's a loving son to his parents, and he trains with a wise old man living in a gorgeous temple. His sifu's talk of meditation and centeredness eludes him. While a nice guy, it's clear early in the film that he's got a serious case of Brown Belt Syndrome, the peculiar affliction most martial artists go through when they feel a burning desire to test their skills in a real fight.

Spotted at a kung fu exhibition by Donaka Mark's recruiters, he's invited to a mysterious job interview. Silent men pick him up in fancy cars and he's flown to an anonymous gray building. He's escorted to a room, left alone for a few unsettling moments, and suprise-attacked by a brutal Muay Thai fighter. Chen overcomes the man, gets paid a significant amount of money, and invited back.

The rest of the film follows Chen's descent into hell. The first dozen fights involve opponents using different styles and fights in the same anonymous gray rooms. As Chen's skill and bloodlust grow, he's brought into boutique fights on boats off the mainland, where he's forced to descend into new levels of savagery to overcome a pair of skilled opponents. Finally, when Chen has sunk to his nadir, Donaka Mark asks him to break his final taboo: kill his opponent.

By that point in the film, I wasn't sure that Tiger Chen wouldn't take Donaka Mark up on it. His later matches show him in complete control and he doesn't so much beats as dominates his opponent. He'd been kicked out of mainstream kung fu tournaments for excessive brutality, he became edgy and impatient with everyone, and he challenged his sifu to a rage-fueled match at the temple. The latter was a spectacular scene and it felt like a child furiously rejecting the teachings of the father. Unlike a lot of martial arts films, where the practitioner is almost saintly in their morality, Tiger Chen has fallen dangerously close to damnation.

But Tiger Chen does hesitate when told to kill his opponent. So Donaka Mark, clad in a black suit and obsidian mask, steps into the ring and snaps the man's neck. The way Mark looks up at Tiger Chen with wrathful eyes behind his expressionless mask reminded me of the inhuman Michael Myers from the Halloween films. By that point, I had no doubt that Donaka Mark was one of the most effective depictions of Lucifer I've ever seen. He'd recognized something inside Tiger Chen, cultivated it, and turned it in a darker direction. The best seducers understand exactly where you're weak and get you to believe that it is a strength.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the ending fight between Donaka Mark and Tiger Chen. I'd never previously thought of Keanu Reeves as a large person, but he positively towers over his opponent. Unlike a lot of the previous fighters, who attack with blindingly fluid swiftness, there's something stiff and methodical about Mark's fighting style. He comes off as unstoppable, again drawing a comparison to the unkillable Michael Myers. The fight ends and we're left with some ambiguity. Did Tiger Chen's sifu's philosophy sink in? Was Donaka Mark's corruption of Tiger Chen complete? The man who stares off into the temple valley at the end of the film seems sadder and more wise. Maybe he's won, maybe he's lost. Once you shake hands with the Devil, you can never come clean.

There's so much good stuff in the movie. Reeves turns out to be a surprisingly good action director. He tailors his directing style to the characterization of the fights. Fights were Tiger is in control are smooth exercises, whereas fights where he's confused or afraid are chaotic without getting lost in American-style shaky camera. There's a fantastic subplot where a female police officer attempts to shut down Donaka's fight club, and she's portrayed as both skilled and fearless. The legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping creates nothing less than a martial arts ballet, where disparate styles clash together elegantly. The script is strong, the performances are spectacular, and there's a lot of smart stuff about purity versus corruption. Most martial arts films I've seen lately are simply contests of the body. Action films in general are examinations of the body in motion. Very few are about the soul at war with itself.

Friday, September 13, 2013

How to have a Friday the 13th Marathon


Hi folks. 

If you're like me, you LOVE Friday the 13th. It's the creepiest day short of Halloween. It's also the title of the longest running horror franchise in the United States. What better way to celebrate the day than to watch the movies? 

But which ones to choose? The task can be daunting for the Jason neophyte, especially since half the movies are fun-bad and the other half are just bad-bad. So, in order to help you make the most of this Friday the 13th, I've curated a list of the Friday the 13th films you SHOULD be watching. 

FIRST FILM. Toss-up. Friday #1 or Friday #2

The long and short is that the first Friday is a better pick for a campy good time, whereas the second Friday is one of the most scary and effective slasher movies of the early 80s. 

While both films followed and expanded upon the formula laid down by John Carpenter's Halloween, the series had not yet settled into the familiar rhythms of the Friday the 13th series. 

Friday 1 hasn't aged well as a horror film. While Sean Cunningham uses the primordial darkness of the woods to great effect, the film iss tame enough to be shown uncut on TV and the ending fight between the middle-aged women and the screaming camp councilor quickly descends into delightful farce. This is the one to pick for a campier good time. 

Friday 2 is more conventionally scary. Director Steve Miner, who would go on to make a career as a slasher director, knows how to work the premise of the lone madman in the words to great effect. We see pre-hockey mask Jason for the first time and this film has Ginny, the psychology major who turns out to be one of the best Final Girls of the series. 

SECOND FILM Friday the 13th Part 4: The Final Chapter. 

A personal favorite of the pre-zombie Jason films, Final Chapter has a lot of good stuff going for it. First, the story is genuinely strong. Sure, it has all the generic touches of a Friday film, but the characterization is much stronger. People go through story arcs, the teenage drama has a sharper focus, Crispen Glover dances like a spaz, and the story holds together better. It also introduces Cory Feldman as Tommy Jarvis, Jason's only consistent nemesis. A horror effects enthusiast with a gift for getting inside monster's heads, he makes an effective foil for the killer.

As this was supposed to be the final film in the series, make-up effects master Tom Savini returned to do the effects work of this film and they work brilliantly. Most of the gore is saved for Jason's death, but it's fantastic work. Tom White, the stuntman in Jason's shoes, delivers my favorite interpretation of the human version of Jason. Jason in part 4 is at once heavy but spry, and White imbues the character with strength and menace. 


Aside from the fact that the movies REALLY follows the slasher-victim stereotype (stoner hippie, prank playing idiot) and the 3D effects are occasionally fun, the movie is mostly unpleasant people dying off. Worth seeing for the moment Jason gets his hockey mask and for a solid final fight. 

THIRD FILM: Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives. 

Working off the strongest script of the series, director Tom McLaughlin attempted to fuse elements of the classic Universal Horror films into the Friday film series. Tommy Jarvis returns to accidentally resurrect Jason with a poorly-placed iron pole and a bolt of lightning, creating the first appearance of Zombie Jason. The character is now overtly supernatural and former Marine C.J. Graham portrays the character as a vengeful automatic, moving Jason with surprising grace and sudden violence. 

There's a lot to really like in this film. The movie is genuinely funny, although the humor stops when Jason appears. The cinematography is gorgeous and evocative of the fog-shrouded hills of Transylvania. The town of Crystal Lake has evolved in order to forget it's horrible past. Tommy makes for a fantastic, haunted Ahab character and he teams up with my favorite final girl of the series, the playful sheriff's daughter Megan. Finally, it's the most 80s film of the series. You can use it as a time capsule for the styles and sounds of the mid-80s. 


Aside from the fact that there's an impostor masquerading as the killer, there's a real meanness of spirit in this film. The director, Danny Steinmann, came out of pornography and he shoots the film very much like a porno. People appear, say a few horrible things, and get killed. It has the highest body count of any Friday film (if you exclude the off-camera slaughter of part  

It is worth seeing for the crazy gothy/new wave dance scene and the evolution of the Tommy Jarvis character. 

FOURTH FILM: Friday the 13th Part Seven: The New Blood. 

It's Jason vs. Carrie!

This film has easily the best fight scene of the Friday series, as the emotionally damaged psychic Tina unleashes her full powers against Jason. The storyline is fairly standard slasher stuff (though it does have the best Bitchy Rich Girl of all slasher movies) but Friday Seven also marks the debut of the definitive Jason actor, stuntman Kane Hodder. 

Most of the stuntmen who took the Jason role had a fairly mercenary outlook on the role, but Hodder approached the role as an actor. His Jason is Fury Incarnate and all later interpretations of the role owe something to his work. 

This is also an excellent film for people adverse to gore. By this point, the backlash against the violence of the series had it's effect and the average episode of CSI has far more gore. 


First, despite the title, most of the action takes place on a boat. Second, a lot of stuff DOES work, but the elements that do are done better in other films. Third, the sewers of New York City don't flood with toxic waste every evening. Fourth, Jason spends the movie looking like a wet trash bag. 

Worth seeing for another Kane Hodder performance, Kelly Hu's overtly supernatural death scene, the rooftop boxing match, and the vision of pre-Giuliani Times Square. 


This is an odd pick because it's the most unconventional of the Friday the 13th series. Jason is blown apart in the beginning of the movie by an FBI team with apparent shoot-to-kill orders, but his essence hops from body to body in order to be reborn by inhabiting one of his relatives. 

JGTH is essentially The Terminator in plotting and Twin Peaks/The X-Files in tone. Jason chases his one living family member, which leads to an amazing police station massacre, and the pursuit is genuinely suspenseful. It goes a little too far off the reservation, but I like it all the same. Also, wait for the surprising Freddy Krueger cameo. 


It's Jason in Space! It's Space Jason! 

This is sadly Kane Hodder's final film as Jason and he spends most of it combating the tone. Though the film had been filmed years before Scream, it shares Scream's meta-tone but melds it with sci-fi campiness. The tone is jokey, nobody takes the action seriously, and the film has the breezy tone of a SyFy channel film. It's a good time, it's just a little bit too campy for me. 

Worth seeing for the cryo-face smash and the Cronenberg cameo. 


While this is far more of a Freddy film than a Jason film, director Ronny Yu invests the film with nightmarish visual style. Made during the influx of Hong Kong directors that followed in John Woo's stead, Yu creates one of my favorite visions of both Springwood and Crystal Lake since part 6. We really get inside Jason's psychology in this film, courtesy of Freddy's manipulations, and the final fight between the two titans of horror is absolutely brutal. 


I didn't really. It's worth seeing, especially since Derek Mears does the best interpretation of Jason since Kane Hodder. But it's a Platinum Dunes remake, and there's something slick and soulless about it. 

Worth seeing for Aaron Yoo's fantastic death scene, Jarad Padalecki's non-Winchester horror turn, and a solid final fight. 


Well, by this point, you've seen the best that the Friday the 13th has to offer. You're in the clear. Smoke some dope, have some premarital sex, and don't worry about getting slaughtered.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sleep No More

From Reddit user neilk:

Some people call Sleep No More "immersive theatre" but that doesn't explain the essence of the thing. The current production in New York is performed in a multi-story hotel. The play is going on in multiple rooms according to a very complicated schedule and the audience is free to move from room to room. Many things are happening simultaneously so you have to come back multiple times to see everything.
The audience wears white masks and must be silent. The performers act as if white masks aren't there. (Usually.) Also, despite being billed as a play, the story is mostly told through physical actions and dance. There are fight scenes, ballroom scenes, seductions, murders, suicides, and some really far out stuff that you have to see for yourself.
The style is film noir, but with a surreal, macabre, sometimes gory, always disturbing atmosphere. Unsettling music is piped in everywhere. You can spend a lot of time just examining the elaborate sets, which also reveal clues about the story.
Occasionally performers will grab members of the audience and take them off into difficult to access locations. This chosen person or persons might see a scene that few ever see -- indeed where the performers outnumber the spectators.
A friend of mine compares it to entering "The Black Lodge" from Twin Peaks.

Here is the magic of Sleep No More

About midway through my experience, I became desperate to ditch the crowd. The building is five stories tall and each floor is full of macabre secrets to explore. I kept climbing and climbing until I reached the top of the 5th floor staircase, where a petite woman in a black mask blocked my way and shook her head at me.

I stalked through the fifth floor door and found myself in an elegant Victorian family apartment. The decor was sumptuous in a Tim Burton-eque way, lots of old toys and antique furnishings and paintings of unsmiling people. When I found my way to the youngest child's room, I saw that the mirror reflected a different version of the room. The room I stood in was neat and tidy, the reflection room was disheveled and had a large dark stain on the bed.

I left the apartment and found myself in a long, pitch-dark hallway. The texture underneath my feet changed and I realized I was standing on dirt. The only illumination in the room came from tiny blue-white lights under the floor. I realized I was standing in an area made to look like a graveyard at night. A small dark shape loomed at the end of the hallway. The eerie, discordant music swelled as I got closer. It was an old baby stroller, painted black.

I was in the home of a family whose child has died.

I've never seen storytelling done so artfully and with such innovation.

This is how Sleep No More works.

You buy an entry time and arrive at a large warehouse in Chelsea. You're surrounded by young twee yuppie types.

You turn in any bags to the coat check. No bags, no cameras, no nuthin'. The people working the door and working the coat check are well-dressed in a slightly anachronistic fashion, somewhere between 1920s flappers and Victorians.

You continue forward through a dark hallway. The reservation desk is at the end of the hallway. You check in and get a playing card (remember this, this is important) before getting instructed to head up to the bar. The path isn't obvious and you have to make turns through tight, dark alleyways. It's disorienting. In retrospect, I view it as time travel.

You arrive at the Manderlay bar. It looks like a Jazz Age club catering to vampire private eyes. Art deco accents touch every surface and the decor is rich, red velvet. The drinks are apparently amazing, but I wanted to be clear headed during the experience.

Finally, they start calling us. My friend had a King card and I had a Queen. The staff stagger their entry times, preventing any group from remaining together. Sleep No More is meant to be experienced alone.

Your ticket gets called and you're ushered into a waiting area by John Waters and Delbert Grady's illegitimate love child. He hands you a bauta mask that fits reasonably well over your glasses and opens the elevator. You ride for awhile. He says the following.

*Sleep No More is an interactive experience and meant to be explored. Don't be confined to one space and don't follow the crowd. Explore at your own pace.
*The people in the black masks are there for your safety.
*No phones, no photos, no talking, no taking off your mask.

People are let off at different floors. We get off at the basement. Some people go right, I go left. I run into a statue of an angel holding a candle. The statue's face is ruined. I shudder and move on.

The story is basically Shakespeare's Macbeth set in a nebulous film noir Jazz Age, with a few added twists and turns thrown in. Familiarity with the core story helps, but it isn't essential.  They do take a lot of liberties and add on a lot of elements.

There is no dialogue in the play. Aside from the occasional shouted "no!" the entire story is told through dance. The choreography is brilliantly done. I have an idea of interpretive dance as being histrionic and pretentious, but the actors do a beautiful job telling the story through movement and expression. 

One of my favorite little add-ons is the story of a young woman looking for her sister. She wandered onto the speakeasy set and sat across a redheaded woman in a red dress. They pantomimed an interaction and, at the end, the madam ripped the girl's bodice and put red lipstick on her.

Hours later, as I explored the hotel set, I ran into the woman again. She had a suitcase with her and she looked like all the misery in the world had been heaped on her shoulders. She was also very, very pregnant. As she crept through the apartment, she unfurled a mirror and stared at her reflection. You could tell that she'd had some rough times. Her story was told without words, with movement and facial expression.

I kind of wish I followed her more. But there's so much stuff to do.

I get weird when I wear masks.

If I have one real complaint about Sleep No More, it's that the crowd is really oppressive. The concierge tells you that you're better off exploring alone, but most of the major set pieces are in central locations and tend to draw groups. I got sick of trying to shove my way into rooms and decided to go off on my own.

I wound up in a tiny lunatic asylum. I was alone. I was wearing a bone-white mask. I've seen Jason Voorhees stalk across the screen a hundred times. I have a stocky body.

I went to the examination room, where an x-ray of a body hung over a horrible bondage chair. I went into a nursery, where a bunch of dolls with severed heads hung over an empty crib like a ghastly cherub. I went into a padded room where the fabric of the walls had been ripped and soiled.

I was a monster in a monstrous space. I liked it.

Sleep No More isn't really theater and it isn't really a haunted house. It's an experience.

I hate interactive haunted houses because I don't like people startling me, but the actors inhabiting Sleep No More don't seem to care whether or not you're there at all. The first time I saw one of the performers, I was in the photography room of the detective's office. The other audience members were rooting through his files. All seemed to be ignoring the photos hanging up on strings criss-crossing the room.

I unclipped one and saw the body of a mutilated girl. Something was carved into her back but it was nearly impossible to see in the dim red light of the office. I tilted my head, stared at the photo some more, and wordlessly handed it off to another audience member. I remember how sloppily he took the photo and the way he stared at it like a witless dog. He might as well not have been wearing the mask. 

I would have kept digging around if the actor hadn't shown up.

He was tall, handsome, and dressed like he'd stumbled out of the photograph of the New Years Eve Party at the end of The Shining. He pushed past us, collapsed against the desk, and fell through the floor clutching his heart. After a few moments of panic, he got back up and stumbled out of the office, back towards the main street of the eerie small town set.

By this point, a crowd of audience members had clustered up behind him. They chased after him as he ran. I stayed behind. Once of the doors adjacent to the detective's office lead to a funeral home. I'd slipped in eariler to flip through the client roster and found the preparation room. A large steel door was affixed to one side. I was sure that the door would open up to the morgue and I wanted to see it for myself.

It never did. Dejected, I wandered my way back to the main street in time to see another actor, similarly dressed, stagger down the street as if wounded. A crowd of audience apparitions followed him, their bone-white bauta masks making them all look like specters in Old Navy cargo shorts.

The actor staggered through the streets, falling in the center of a dim spotlight. The crowd gathered around him like silent executioners. He picked himself up and continued through the set, toward the eerie tailor shop with the rusty scissors in the window held up with red ribbon.

I watched the whole thing pass me by. The two actor's movements were almost in perfect synchronicity. One character, trapped in a panicked loop, stumbling around in the dark over and over again.

For the first time in my life, I really understood what it must be like to see a ghost.

I had a really intense emotional reaction to the ending.

You're given a couple of hours to explore everything in the McKittrick hotel before the attendants in the black masks begin funneling audience members toward the basement. You go underneath the hotel lobby, down the church staircase, and enter the grand ballroom. 

All of Macbeth's lovers, friends, and victims return to him at a big banquet. Things degenerate into a brutal squabble and MacDuff leads a grateful Macbeth to his gallows. The play ends with a very realistic hanging.

I have a difficult time with hangings. I turned my head and shuddered. We were all filed up the stairs toward the exit. I glanced back occasionally to see the body swing by the rafters, a silhouette against dark blue lights, swaying to some tinny recording of a Bing Crosby jazz standard.  

Seeing Sleep No More was one of the best experiences of my life. I'm addicted. I want to go over and over again. It hits all my ghoulish buttons, it's beautiful in a very macabre way, and it creates a world I want to continue to inhabit. I've heard people compare it to Bioshock, Inception, Lovecraft, or a zillion other old-world mysteries and horrors.

I'm addicted. I can't wait to go back. You should go, too.

New York Times review

Gizmodo article

Excellent first timer advice

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nos4a2 by Joe Hill

Since I reported my completion of Nos4a2 on my GoodReads account, people have been asking me what I thought about. It's natural: Hill is probably the most interesting mainstream up-and-coming horror writer working right now and Nos4a2 has been treated like his breakout novel. I picked up the book in an airport bookstore in Pittsburgh. It was in the recommended reads section and had prominent placement. When was the last time you've seen a horror novel get that much attention?

Nos4a2 is about a vampire named is Charlie Manx. He's a little bit of a rube and a little bit deadly, slightly too comical but also cunningly lethal. He drives a bad ass Rolls Royce Wraith around, picking up little children to take back to his imaginary Christmas kingdom. Once there, he steals their youth and their humanity in order to keep himself young.

If any parent objects, Manx feeds them to his Renfield, an emotionally stunted little misanthrope named the Gasmask Man.

The only person who can oppose him is a damaged young woman named Vic McQueen. The product of a broken home, she has discovered a way to magically travel anywhere she needs to be almost instantly, but the process has done severe damage to her psyche. Now, with the life of a loved one hanging in the balance, she must find the courage to ride across the covered bridge and confront Manx in his nightmarish inscape of Christmasland. 

The more I read Joe Hill's stuff, the more I'm starting to see patterns and repeat motifs emerge. Hill writes brilliantly wounded young adults. Hill doesn't do happy romances. Hill's work straddles a line between fantasy and horror. Hill is already creating his own mythos, where everyday objects bestowing incredible powers on people at horrible cost. Characters strive for either redemption or validation.

The damaged character thing is probably my favorite aspect of his work. Horror fiction has its fair share of wounded heroes but most of them are inelegantly handled. Dark pasts are window dressing for stern figures to brood over or psychos to have a justification. Hill's characters actually feel like damaged human beings. They're barely keeping it together, mired with regret, prone to wishful thinking, and possessed of fearsome self-destructive anger.

One of the things that drew me to horror fiction over, say, science fiction or fantasy is that horror is an examination of human frailty. Both sci-fi and fantasy are full of powerful heroes and humans elevated to godhood. Horror characters don't triumph, they don't win and they're mostly lucky to get through in one piece.

I like that. I play video games to feel powerful. I watch horror movies to feel vulnerable. You can't make an invincible character feel vulnerable. Joe Hill does human weakness very well. I can imagine some people might think he goes too far and his characters are too far gone, but I sympathize with them. 

As much as I liked the characterization of this book, I think I preferred Horns more.

Part of the reason I like the horror genre over the science fiction or fantasy genre is I have an admittedly limited imagination. When I real a sci-fi/fantasy novel, I have to have the world explained to me. Not only do I have to become emotionally invested in the characters and their journey, now I have to spend pages on descriptions of stuff I don't actually care about.

Sorry, y'all. New worlds belong in visual media. So does Christmasland.

Hill does have the advantage of everyone being at least passingly familiar with Christmas tradition, and it's not hard to invert Christmas stuff and make it creepy ("Happy children with knives! Christmas ornaments made from severed heads!") but it felt more like a dangerous fantasy setting than a horror story. This is more a preference than a complaint and I'm sure a lot of people will love that aspect of Nos4a2 but it only kinda-sorta worked for me. I liked the eerie lonely echo of the House of Sleep more. It didn't help that the book downshifted toward the end. The kid gets kidnapped slightly more than halfway through the book and the ensuing chase, which should have been a breathless and tense rush, turns into two separate side quests and a meander.

I did like fact that magic came at tremendous cost. The Wraith provides Charlie Manx with eternal life and access to a tiny pocket dimension, but it also means that he is stuck in perpetual, petulant childhood. Vic McQueen can travel anywhere that she needs to, but the price has been a lifetime of self-destructive behavior and struggles to keep her sanity. I have always liked the idea that there would be a hard cost to disrupting the fabric of reality. It's done well in the book. If I had Vic McQueen's bike, I'd probably leave that covered bridge alone.  

Nos4a2 feels like a later effort from a punk rock band. Some of the appealing raw energy is gone, but the voice is more solid and confident. He's figured out what he does well and he mostly sticks to it. I liked the monster Charlie Manx quite a bit, I felt for Vic McQueen, and I love the way their stories played out. The book did feel a little overlong at parts and the second half could have easily been condensed, but it's a fine story all the same. I'm really digging Hill's work. I can't wait for his next one.

Art by gabrielrodriguez and cpwilsoniii

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Night Show by Richard Laymon

Richard Laymon has always been hard for me to pin down.

I tend to pay a lot of attention to the subtext underneath fiction. It's very difficult for me to accept a story at face value. I always try to derive deeper meaning to the work, often when it isn't there, or I try to tease out the creator's motivations. Horror is particularly fertile ground because so much of the genre is symbolic. It's also often troublingly regressive. Horror is the genre of Don't: don't go into the woods, don't disturb the home, don't have sex, don't transgress, don't stray from the straight and narrow.

So I've always had a hard time wrapping my mind around Laymon. In short, he is either the biggest misogynist or the most subversive commenter on male entitlement in horror fiction.

Reading Laymon is a squicky affair. He writes a lot about sex, but it's the kind of hyper-described soulless mashing of anatomy that turns off anyone short of a Penthouse forum reader. It's always aggro, vaguely abusive, and unerringly predatory. Which isn't to say those things can't be fun, but there's something distancing and uncomfortable about the way he writes sex scenes that makes me feel like I'm watching particularly vicious porn in a room full of leering, past-their-prime frat dudes.

On the other hand, he never portrays predatory sexuality in a positive light. His leering men are usually brutal caricatures of unrestrained male sexual aggression. I've written a little about him in the past and it seemed that the point of his stories was that there's a slippery slope between entitled creep and misogynistic psychopath.

Laymon has sadly passed away. I've only been able to dig up a handful of interviews with him and they rarely address the subtext of his work. I do find it fascinating and ultimately rewarding. Either he was a complete creep or he was a master at getting into the mind of creeps and forcing us to see life from their perspective.

Night Show is the story of Tony, AKA The Chill Master. Tony is an 18 year old kid with severe psychological issues. He gets off on scaring people, he has no understanding of boundaries, and he becomes fixated on people he's attracted to. We first meet him as he kidnaps a girl who had previously rejected him, then tying her to a bannister in a supposedly haunted house. Following that misadventure, he leaves his home in upstate New York for Hollywood, intent on apprenticing with gore effect maestro Dani Larson. Dani is at first unsettled by Tony's outlandish behavior, but reluctantly takes the young man under her wing. He becomes fixated with her and works to sabotage her new relationship and take his place as her new lover.

 I really enjoyed this book. Aside from the fact that it hit all my Fangoria Magazine/Tom Savini buttons, the way that Laymon portrayed Tony's mental instability felt spot-on. He felt like a more accurate depiction of a psychopath, at once charming and manipulative but fixated on his own needs and unable to understand how his actions affected other people. What made Tony so dangerous was that he just didn't get it. He didn't understand how his behavior affected other people. His social abilities extended only as far as his own needs.

Most psychopaths in genre fiction aren't truly insane. They're evil and sexy. They sit in their little see-through cages and glower at the haggard detective with a knowing smile on their lips. That's not a person with a serious mental illness; that's just Dracula with no superpowers. Tony is sick and needs help. The potential damage a sick person can do is much scarier to me than just another bad-for-bad's-sake dude.

My favorite aspect of Tony's insanity as that he doesn't physically hurt people. Sure, there is violence in the book, but Tony's Chill Master schtick never actually causes permanent physical damage. I've seen dozens of stories where a person's fixation on violent media turns them into killers (looking at you, Scream) but Tony asserts his power by terrifying people, not hurting them. We're never quite sure how far he's willing to go as he becomes more fixated on Dani and the tension of escalation is more rewarding than simply dropping bodies like a slasher movie.

I suppose I'm always going to wrestle with my reactions to Laymon's work. He's a good enough writer to keep reading, but his subject matter and presentation make me want to take a shower. The ambiguity of his intentions will always get to me and I'm sure I'll hate the next book I come across. But I've enjoyed my experiences with his work, so long as I take long breaks between reading his novels.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

If I Were Writing Evil Ernie

Loneliness is a horrible thing.

Loneliness isn't a question of physical proximity to other people. Ask anyone who has ever lived in a big city or grew up significantly different in a small-minded little town. You can be surrounded by people, even people who know your name, and wind up feeling like the last person left on earth.

That kind of isolation can twist a person. I have a hard time believing that there is a lot of pure sociopathic evil in the world. Instead, I believe that the worst people in the world are the product of curdled bitterness. People get despondent or mean, start seeing life in a twisted way, and look for structures that support their newly-warped perspective. It seems like living damnation to me. 

So. Pretend you're a sixteen year old kid. You're terrified of your violent father, whom all the adults in your town seem love and admire. Nobody in school likes you, you're too timid to stand up for yourself, and you have no chance of ever getting laid.

Worse, you're psychic. Most people with no self-esteem simply imagine the terrible things people think about them. You get to actually hear it. You know that everyone around you can't stand being near you. Something about who you repulses them. 

Sounds pretty hopeless, doesn't it?

Now imagine that a magical woman visits you in your dreams. She's alabaster white, she says that she loves you, and that she can make you the most important person in the world. She will give you the sex that you've always dreamed about and she will give you the power to return to the world all the pain it has ever given you. And, once it's all done, you will be king of everything. You aren't the worthless weakling everyone said you were. You were different. You were powerful.

Evil Ernie is the patron saint of violent revenge fantasies.

Image by OtisFrampton

Revenge fantasies are nice. They're about the powerless regaining power, the underdog working toward the kind of fairness real life seldom offers. We tend to romanticize vengeance stories and ignore the innocent people trampled underneath. 

The hook behind Evil Ernie is that he has to kill everyone in the world in order for his lover to be reborn. In the meantime, everyone he kills becomes one of his army. The newly-dead members of his revolting crusade revere Ernie as something between a rock star and a god. It's a zombie apocalypse where the zombies are as intelligent as they are malicious.

The universe of Evil Ernie is somewhere between superhero comic, pro-wrestling jamboree, and slasher film. Ernie wages an endless war against humanity and everything he takes over turns into a twisted parody of itself. The baseball teams still play games, albeit with severed heads as balls, young lovers go on romantic massacres, and sitcom families argue about how best to carve the thanksgiving victim. 

There's so much ripe material to cultivate in the Evil Ernie mythology. His origin story is steeped in very human themes of isolation and madness, his armies create a morbid carnival in its wake, and his world is full of muscle-bound psychopaths and deranged soldiers and slinky vampire angels. It never quite came together as a story under original creator Brian Pulido's reign, as his reach often exceeded his abilities, but the potential is there to refresh the zombie apocalypse subgenre. Or, at least, turn it into a delightful Looney Tunes cartoon.

Unfortunately, all that good stuff has been jettisoned in the recent remake. Most of the story seems to center around "Evil" Ernie (who's actually a fairly nice emo boy) fighting his way though the prison his white trash father is incarcerated in. Lots of family drama and emotional vacillating, not a lot of  gleeful over-the-top chaos. Original Halloween vs. Rob Zombie's Halloween

If I were writing Evil Ernie, I'd stick close to the original ideas that shaped the character. I like the idea that he's a weak, bullied kid tormented by his peers and elevated by a twisted version of love. There's always been a sense of ambivalence as to whether or not Lady Death actually cares about him or if she's just using him to escape her hellish prison. I would like to see that built on and expanded further. Their relationship is operatic and high drama but they're both insane supernatural psychopaths. People fall in love for all sorts of reasons and some of them are very bad indeed.  

I'd also keep the trappings of the heavy metal universe Evil Ernie operates in. Monster movie iconography, grinning skeletons, comically gory abattoirs, blood, chrome, and viking bullshit. Brian Pulido definitely drew on 80s metal icons. Evil Ernie looks like a cross between Pulido himself and Iron Maiden's Eddie the Head icon. It's cool, but I like the way the remake made him younger and smoothed out his hair. The curly-haired metal guy look might be a little too 80s and making him younger makes him more vulnerable and more likely to be suckered by Lady Death's manipulations.
The big mistake the remake made is trying to make Ernie too conventionally sympathetic. He's a character of the id. We want to see him rampage and cause destruction so long as it's safely confined to the page. It's fun watching apocalyptic carnage from the monster's perspective. We sympathize with him because we can understand the feelings that lead him to become a monster. He's an outlet for us and he looks like he's having a good time doing it.

I've always felt that horror audiences secretly cheer the monster. They get to cut loose in a way that we aren't allowed to. But the bizarre paradox is that we demand the monster's destruction. We cannot allow evil to remain free for long and we celebrate its demise. Ernie lives in a world where the monsters win. Every evil thing that he does reshapes the world in his own image. He creates a place where people love him, where he doesn't have to be tormented or alone anymore.

A lot of horror stories answer the nature vs. nurture question of evil squarely on nature. Monsters do monstrous things because they are monsters. End of story. Evil Ernie is an example of Nurture evil. He is the product of cruelty. Obviously there's a limit to how much you can sympathize with a mass murderer, but Evil Ernie is fascinating examination of the dark side of giving power to the powerless. 

(Note to all y'all: This is part of a series I write on my tumblr where I discuss how I'd write major comic book characters. If you'd like to read more, check out Cable, Dr. Strange, and Green Arrow.) 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How to Run a Horror Role-Playing Scenario

I learned how to tell stories by running role-playing games.

I've run Call of Cthulhu for fifteen years. A friend of mine bought me the book at some point in high school (thanks, Jeremy) and I fell completely under it's spell. I played with a group all through college, I've done six years of convention horror events and I got really, really good at this stuff. I've never met anyone who runs horror games better than I do.

This is how you do it.

1: Most of the ideas a lot of GMs have for increasing player tension (taking their gear, taking their character) aren't so much scary as GM Fiat. Yes, most role-players, especially people who favor combat games like Dungeons and Dragons, rely too much on weaponry. This shouldn't be a huge issue for games like Call of Cthulhu as most of the monsters are barely effected by human weaponry, but plenty of groups run under the philosophy that anything dies if given enough rounds. This is a problem for most horror fiction in general. When you look at stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it's really an action show with people beating up monsters instead of criminals or soldiers or whatever. Most RPG characters are at least competent in combat.

The shortcut to good character conflict is to put your PCs in situations that your characters AREN'T already equipped to deal with. There's a reason so many great stories involve meek characters who rise to challenges or strong characters learning compassion from being forced to interact with softer counterparts. Figure out who your characters are and then create situations that take them out of their comfort zones.

2: A lot of GMs believe that horror role-playing is primarily about off a bunch of player characters. Horror role-playing isn't about amassing a body count but it's about creeping out the people at your table. A dead character is at best a distraction. It's not that hard for a GM to get a body count. It's a lot harder to get people emotionally invested enough to scare them.

In that vein, don't get too in love with descriptions of gore. Good gore can be evocative, but too much gets fappy.

3: (the big one): You HAVE to control the environment you play in. You cannot scare people in a brightly lit room with music playing and cell phones going off. You can maybe evoke the trappings of the horror genre in your game but without the proper physical environment you're just playing an action game dressed in fangs and a taffeta cape.

You have to play in the darkness. Because I favor the simplicity of Call of Cthulhu's rule system, I play in a small circle, either by candle light or by a single very dim light. My character's most important scores are written very large on index cards so they can be seen in dim light.Have your players use their cell phones so they have just enough illumination to read the cards for their skills. Have dice corrals so they don't hop all over the place in the dark. Distractions are kept to a minimum and I take a ten minute break every hour so people can pee and fiddle with their phone. If you're doing your job right, people will need breaks in tension.

 4: You have to cultivate a ghost story voice. I tend to view horror role-playing as an interactive campfire ghost story, which is why I take such effort to control the environment. Keep descriptions very short, but with strong central imagery for the players to work off of. For scenes of high tension, where I have my characters creeping through an old house, I drop my voice low and make it soft and feminine. When my players encounter a scene of awful violence, I break up my descriptions and raise my voice in hysterics. When I come to a point of obvious danger, I stop speaking abruptly and force the characters to make their choices from a point of imbalance.

And, yes, I occasionally slam my hand on the table. I used to scream, but that shit was corny. A heavy book slammed down gives you the jump scare you occasionally need without being comical.

5: As much as you need to cultivate the right physical environment, you also have to cultivate the right group.

There are a bunch of people I play with in other genres who I'd NEVER put in a horror game. They like goofing around, they undermine mood, and they don't engage with the in-game world in a serious way. They're basically playing Grand Theft Auto in any game they're put in. That's totally fine and they're a lot of fun when I run superhero games, but I need someone who's willing to buy in to the mood. A lot of people simply can't.

 6: Combat is the hardest thing to pull off in horror gaming. Most RPG combats are either tactical by nature, where you have to problem-solve as much as fight, or they're like a football game where two groups of bruisers whale on each other. Combat takes the GM's role from active to reactive, where the players and their decisions are in charge and you are bouncing off what they do. It turns atmosphere and storytelling into a series of numbers.

Horror is about powerlessness. Most gamers don't like that feeling. If you want to get that feeling across, have your player's goal be less about killing or subduing the monster and more about escape.

Example. Most character-to-character fights are like Jason Bourne vs. some other Treadstone assassin. They're both highly competent and evenly matched and it's a skill-vs-skill thing until the hero triumphs. A horror fight should be like Leatherface trying to capture a frightened teenager. She crawls into someplace small to hide, he's reaching for her, she's kicking his hand away and hitting his arm with a wrench she grabs off the ground. He's stronger than she is, she can't do much damage to her, but she might be able to fend him off.

7: As an example, I ran a CoC event every year at a gaming convention. I requested a private room so I could control mood and set the scene for the players before starting. You have to create fairly conservative scenarios when you're running convention games and I ran a nice simple story involving Cthulhu.

The hook of the story involves the ghost of a little girl. The girl's father was a well-known and successful artist who started having dreams about R'lyeh. As his visions became more apocalyptic, he drowned his daughter in his bathtub to spare her from the second coming of Cthulhu before hanging himself. The players all knew these facts before entering the family's abandoned house in search of some Evidence.

When they got to the house I turned ALL the lights in the room off except for my tiny central one. I described the house in very simple terms, basically that it looked like a normal for-sale property but knowing the sad history of the place gave it an ominous feel.

When they said they approached, I paused. Without saying anything like "are you sure", I made it clear by slowing down the way I spoke and pausing at points that they were entering hostile territory.

After screwing around and searching a couple of rooms, I had them make listen checks. One made it and I whispered in their ear that they heard splashing and the sounds of struggle from the rear of the home. The player passed the information onto the others (it works better than a general address to the group, which prevents the game players feeling like a hive mind and casting doubt on the bearer of the information)

They find the bathroom that the artist drowned his daughter in. I make it a point to describe it as antiseptically white and clean but that the tub is full and there are lots of strands of jet black hair (my ghost child had long black hair.) As they're standing in the doorway, I dropped a heavy book on the table to symbolize the bathroom door slamming shut. As the players freak out I describe, in fast breathless panic tones, the sound of the father drowning the daughter from behind the door.

At this point I ask the person who has the lowest current sanity score to make a POW x3 check. He/She does and I make a note of that. I tell that player that their character has wandered off. The other players have been distracted by the sounds and they believe that it's possible one of their number could have slipped off.

At this point, I have the others making a listen check. While they're doing so, I tell the POW x3 player that he/she is in the master bedroom and he's looking at the ghost of the artist who hung himself. The hanging didn't go well. I have him/her make a sanity check and, whatever the results, I ask him/her to freak out when the other players find them.

The players return with their listen results. They hear the sound of a rope creaking and realize their friend is missing. The sound leads them to the master bedroom, they see the ligature mark on the beam, and the other player is freaking out. In the bedroom is the clue they needed. That's it. No guns fired, no players wound up dead, but that scene works EVERY DAMN TIME.

Running horror games has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It taught me a lot about creating and sustaining atmosphere, helped me perfect my public speaking skills, and given me the tools to tell a story. Over the last few years I've shifted to writing both prose and scriptwriting, but I've also come to miss the immediate thrill of running scary games. You have to think on your feet, your audience constantly challenges you, and you learn how to read your players and develop new ideas on the fly. All of these skills are essential for all types of storytelling and I am deeply grateful to the games that help me develop as a writer.