- The Five Stages of Being Adapted by Martin Scorsese - Interesting article interviewing authors who've had movies adapted from their novels. I particularly liked Dennis Lehane's thoughts on writing for the screen:
I hate the term “cinematic” when it’s applied to anything besides cinema. I feel like saying, “What it is is perfectly detailed. What it is is giving you the impression of cinema before cinema existed.” Good writing is vivid. Good writing is visual. Good writing makes the brain turn into a film projector. What I would consider “cinematic writing,” and I would disparage it, is writing so it can be made into a film. Just write a script.And this bit about the reception of Shutter Island is good too:
Critically, the response to [Shutter Island] was pretty tepid. I remember A.O. Scott at The New York Times practically had an embolism over it. He hated it so much. I thought it was hilarious. I had a blast reading that review and I would read that out loud to my friends. I know that the general critical response was, “It’s OK, but in the Scorsese lexicon we throw it around the Cape Fear general area.” But the popular response is bigger than anything else I’ve been associated with.I guess there still are movie stars these days...
“Oh, you’re a writer, what do you write?” Like, people expect you to say you’re a copywriter or something like that. I’ll say, “I wrote Mystic River,” and sometimes I get a kind of, “Oh, I think that was a movie.” But I say Shutter Island, everybody goes, “Oh, DiCaprio?” Everybody knows it, so …
- ‘Parasite’: How This Year’s Wildest, Buzziest, Most Unexpected Breakout Hit Came to Life - This interview with Bong Joon Ho features this insane exchange:
Would you direct a Marvel movie?Now I do kinda want to see him take that on.
Bong: I have a personal problem. I respect the creativity that goes into superhero films, but in real life and in movies, I can’t stand people wearing tight-fitting clothes. I’ll never wear something like that, and just seeing someone in tight clothes is mentally difficult. I don’t know where to look, and I feel suffocated. Most superheroes wear tight suits, so I can never direct one. I don’t think anyone will offer the project to me either. If there is a superhero who has a very boxy costume, maybe I can try.
- Sporty - From the #idontknowwhatthefuckisgoingoninthisvideo file. As speculated by the commenters, I'm pretty sure they found the jacket and just had to make something to capitalize on it.
- Hermit Crabs have an interesting form of cooperative competition:
As the hermit crab grows in size, it must find a larger shell and abandon the previous one. Several hermit crab species, both terrestrial and marine, have been observed forming a vacancy chain to exchange shells. When an individual crab finds a new empty shell it will leave its own shell and inspect the vacant shell for size. If the shell is found to be too large, the crab goes back to its own shell and then waits by the vacant shell for up to 8 hours. As new crabs arrive they also inspect the shell and, if it is too big, wait with the others, forming a group of up to 20 individuals, holding onto each other in a line from the largest to the smallest crab. As soon as a crab arrives that is the right size for the vacant shell and claims it, leaving its old shell vacant, then all the crabs in the queue swiftly exchange shells in sequence, each one moving up to the next size.It's not all rainbows and sunshine ("Hermit crabs often "gang up" on one of their species with what they perceive to be a better shell"), but it's neat when it works out.
- Captain Picard sings "Let it Snow!" - Some people have a lot of time on their hands.
- The greatest talk-show entrance of all time - Nicolas Cage on Wogan, 1992.
- Watchmen - I was skeptical; who was really hankering for a sequel to the Watchmen graphic novel? I may be biased because of my general distaste for sequels, but I gave the series a shot, and it's steadily been chipping away at all my reservations about the show. It hits a lot of "prestige TV" notes and starts off by just dropping you into a world that isn't quite familiar (even if you've read the comic book). A lot of it still feels unnecessary, but it's actually quite good and getting better as it goes. Will it continue to pick up steam and end strong? I still have doubts, but this show has earned a place on my increasingly crowded watching schedule.
- The Mandalorian - I've already posted my initial thoughts on the first two episodes and am genuinely curious to see where it's headed. It's quite good, but it hasn't achieved greatness yet. Still, tons of potential and it's hitting the non-prequel, low-ish stakes, and new character notes that most recent Star Wars has been missing. Baby Yoda is indeed great and cute, and so far, the whole "never taking off the mask" thing hasn't bothered me as much as the show's critics.
- The Good Place - If you haven't seen this, I highly recommend watching through the conclusion of the first season. Spoilers for what follows! One of the things about the show that you kinda have to buy into is that its vision of the afterlife is, well, kinda dumb. One of the great things about the conclusion of the first season was that there was a really good reason why the afterlife was that dumb - it was all a ruse. They manage to keep up the quality in the second season pretty well, but by the third season, it was definitely running out of steam. Now in its fourth and final season, it's almost completely out of juice. Of course, I still love the show, it's got a high joke density that lands most of time, and the characters are so likable and endearing that I still want to keep watching, but I'm glad this is the final season. It's kinda on hiatus now until it finishes up early next year, but I'm kinda interested in the overarching story again because it's kinda become canon that the system at the heart of the series is flawed and, well, kinda dumb. I have no idea how they're going to resolve that though...
- The Irishman - Martin Scorsese's latest epic gangster flick is an unwieldy 3.5 hours long, which is probably at least a half hour too long. Look, I get it, De Niro's character slowly but surely sacrifices everything good in his life for the sake of his mafia friends, who clearly don't care, and it happens bit by bit over the course of decades, such that he doesn't even realize it's happening until it's far too late. The last hour of the film, once he realizes what he's done, is devastating and heartbreaking... I dunno, maybe it needs to be that long in order to get to that place, but pacing matters, and while I was never bored or anything, this didn't quite have the energy that sustains Scorsese's best efforts. As a result, I don't see myself revisiting this the way I do with Goodfellas, Casino, Wolf of Wall Street, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, etc... (geeze, this guy's made a lot of great movies, I could easily list five more that I'd rewatch tonight...) The best mafia movies are able to balance the romantic, attractive side of the life with the darkness and despair that inevitably follows. Goodfellas, in particular, is fantastic at this. The Irishman is more subtle and more calibrated around the darkness and despair, which doesn't exactly make for a pleasant viewing. Anyway, De Niro and Pacino are great, definitely working at a level far above where they've been lately, but the real star is Pesci, who is really fantastic here. Side characters without much time even manage a big impact, like Anna Paquin and Stephen Graham, who are both standouts despite not a ton of time onscreen. Definitely worth a watch and maybe even one of the best of the year; it's actually grown on me in the last few days, so maybe it will continue to expand its influence in my mind as time goes on...
- Prospect - Neat little SF thriller set on an alien moon, where a teenaged girl and her father are trying to prospect for naturally occurring gems. Naturally, there are competitors and unfriendlies that complicate matters and turn the whole venture into one of survival. There's some heavy reliance on tropes in the worldbuilding, but it gets better as it goes. Interestingly, since the environment on the moon isn't particularly friendly to human life, they spend most of the movie with their space suits and helmets on, something a lot of movies wouldn't bother with, but which adds a bit of verisimilitude that serves the movie well (and the filmmakers seem to view the limitations of this approach as a benefit, rather than just a challenge to be disposed of). Apparently this will be eligible for the Hugo awards, even though it premiered last year - it will be on my ballot.
- Dolemite Is My Name - When I was younger, my brother and his friends came home one day with a tape from a video rental place. The movie was The Monkey Hustle, starring one Rudy Ray Moore. For some reason, we became obsessed with this dude and watched a bunch of his other movies, including Dolemite. They aren't strictly good in any objective sense, but they've certainly got an energy about them. So this new film, Dolemite Is My Name, is a love letter to Moore and his particular brand of raunchy comedy. It's kind of a biopic, but it focuses pretty narrowly on one portion of Moore's career, so it doesn't fall prey to all the cliches usually associated with the sub-genre, and it's a whole boatload of fun. Eddie Murphy is fantastic, certainly the best thing he's done in, um, decades? Jeeze. Great supporting cast as well, particularly Wesley Snipes. It's a pretty fantastic example of the "I'm pretty sure it didn't happen this way, but who cares because this is really fun!" style movie. Well worth checking out.
- Delta-V by Daniel Suarez - A billionaire hires a bunch of adventurer/explorer types to man his deep space mission to mine an asteroid; hijinks ensue. Pretty solid SF told in Suarez's breezy style. It scratches the hard SF itch while being pretty entertaining, but it doesn't really approach the true sense of wonder that marks the best of the genre either. Still, I really enjoyed this, quite a bit more than a lot of recent SF that I've read.
- Zero to One Notes on Start-Ups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters - Peter Thiel is a famous tech entrepreneur who was one of the founders of Paypal. Blake Masters was a Standford grad student who took a class taught by Thiel and eventually came to work with Thiel to publish a book on Thiel's ideas. This post can't really do justice to Thiel's ideas, but he has some interesting thoughts on monopolies, competition, and what he terms "indefinite optimism". It's at its best when he's waxing philosophical on topics like this, though the bits on the nuts and bolts of operating a startup work too (they're just necessarily more mundane). It's actually very short, and could probably use a bit more fleshing out, but lots of food for thought here. As a fan of Science Ficiton, I thought Thiel's framing of the indefinite/definite and pessimism/optimism would make interesting axis for SF - the definite optimism of the golden age yielding to indefinite pessimism of the new wave (maybe not the best description, but the general idea of SF becoming more pessimistic over time is pretty clear), etc... It could be interesting, but it'd be a topic for another post.
- Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell - By this point, you should already know what you think of Gladwell, and this book most likely won't change your mind. I tend to enjoy his style and think he's good at articulating certain things. For its part, this book seems to me to be a warning of the dangers of being hyper-vigilant. Sure, you might catch a Bernie Madoff earlier on and maybe the police can clean up a crime-ridden neighborhood, but applying that same hyper-vigilantism to other, more trustworthy areas can be disastrous. The book meanders a bit and Gladwell's focus isn't necessarily on hyper-vigilantism, but that was the most relevant piece for me, and you can see it all over the place (i.e. obvious places like politics, but also social media and smaller scale communities, etc...). Again, if you're not a Gladwell fan, this won't change your mind, but if you are, it's solid stuff.
- Watchmen: Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Music from the HBO Series) - As I was watching the series, I was thinking that the music was great and a little familiar and look at that, it's Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Great stuff, and good background for working...
The Finer Things
- The Kaedrin Beer Blog is still going, though posting has dropped off quite a bit. Still, we've entered barrel-aged stout season and I'm working my way through BCBS variants (best so far is the Reserve Rye) and the more local, independent Free Will Ralphius variants (so far, the Vanilla and Double Barrel-Aged are the best variants, better than most of last year's for sure).
- The Annual Egg Nog Tasting this year was of moderate size. Not much to cover that we haven't covered before, but a couple of newish entries this year, including the semi-local Kreider Farms Eggnog (which was my favorite) and Promised Land (which the majority voted as best).
- China 9, Liberty 37 - A gunfighter is saved from the hangman, but only if he agrees to murder a miner who has refused to sell his land to the railroad company. This is the plot to approximately 40% of all western movies, but coming as it does towards the end of the spaghetti western run, the film is more poetic and reflective than usual. Of course, this also makes it slower moving, but it's clearly far more interested in the characters, which are more fleshed out than you'd expect. Warren Oats plays the miner (and former gunslinger) with a wistful edge and Jenny Agutter does great work as his wife, trapped by circumstance. Fabio Testi certainly looks the part of the young gun, but his accent detracts from an otherwise solid performance. The love triangle that develops between the three isn't exactly breaking new ground either, but the character work adds some sense of distinction. Director Monte Hellman certainly has a keen eye, taking full advantage of the spaghetti western tropes in composing his landscapes and blocking his scenes. If you can find a decent transfer of the film (i.e. not the one on Amazon prime, which is SD and cropped/pan-and-scan), it looks great, almost painterly at times. Pino Donaggio turns in a solid spaghetti-style score too, full of harmonicas and guitars. Ultimately a well made take on a standard western story, the plot doesn't quite sustain itself, but its other qualities make it worthy of a watch. **1/2
- Days of Heaven - Terrence Malick's elegiac dreamscape defies any real plot description. Oh sure, there's a love triangle, a light critique of labor in the early 20th century, and some grifting schemes, but they're muted at almost every opportunity. Instead, we get 94 minutes of impeccably photographed landscapes and people. Indeed, most of the film was shot using natural light during the "magic hour", an insane decision that lead to a production schedule where they only really filmed for, like, 20 minutes a day. Ennio Morricone's score is also great and fits seamlessly with the film's dreamlike tone.
- Grease - Australian good girl moves to American and falls in love with a greaser over the summer, but when they unexpectedly wind up attending the same school, worlds will collide, Jerry. Will they overcome peer pressure and their friends' expectations to keep the romance going? I'm not a big fan of musicals, but I can definitely see why this has such a devoted following.
- Death Force - A trio American soldiers in Vietnam come up with a side hustle of smuggling cocaine in the coffins of Vietnam soldiers killed in action. Two of the soldiers betray the third, shooting him and throwing him overboard. Only he doesn't die... he washes up on some remote Pacific island populated by two imperial Japanese soldiers who have been stranded there since the end of WWII and still think it's their duty to occupy the land (not knowing the war had ended, like, 25 years previous). Anyway, our betrayed hero learns the art of the Samurai from his new Japanese friends, gets rescued, then goes on a rampage with his Samurai sword, taking out every gangster he sees. So yeah, this is a pretty bonkers little exploitation flick. It's not conventionally good, but it's quite entertaining if you get on its wavelength. Obviously low budget, the filmmakers go with the flow and present their limitations almost as if they were some sort of aesthetic choice. The result is perhaps more unintentionally funny than poignant, but it's got a heart in there somewhere. This isn't going to show up on my top 10 or anything, but it's a fun little flick and worth checking out if you enjoy trash. **
- Coma - A young doctor uncovers a rash of mysterious events at her hospital. A steady stream of relatively healthy patients are coming in for routine surgery and experiencing inexplicable "complications" that result in comas. She becomes obsessed with investigating and exposing the potential conspiracy. This is a sturdy little mid-tier conspiracy thriller adapted by Michael Crichton from a Robin Cook novel. While the story was not written by Crighton, it touches on many of the themes Crighton clearly loves, and he's actually a pretty solid director, able to ratchet up the tension in both obvious and non-obvious ways throughout this film. Geneviève Bujold turns in a great performance as the surgeon turned investigator here, and she clearly drives the entire movie despite the appearance of Michael Douglas as her boyfriend (an early role for him, clearly not the superstar he'd later become, he does well in this supporting role).
- I'm enjoying it. It's not perfect, but there's lots of potential, and we're finally getting new Star Wars that isn't hyper-dependent on what came before. It's true that we get little references and "I recognize that thing" pretty frequently, but they're mostly minor fan-service and the series appears to be making good use of the extended universe beyond characters we know.
- I guess they've generally decided that the opening crawl is a numbered-entry thing only going forward, but it's weird, I feel like this series (or at least the first episode) could have made good use of it. Dropping into the story the way we did is fine, to be sure, but the opening crawl could have maybe better contextualized things.
- The series basically had me within 5-10 minutes when it did the whole iris door gag, which I'm not going to spoil, but which was eye opening for sure.
- Funny that in Empire the whole carbon-freezing process was untested and no one was even sure if a human being would survive, but now it's standard practice for all bounty hunters or something? Darth Vader: great innovator and technology disruptor.
- Werner Herzog is always welcome and his speech cadence just works in situations like this, but it's a short scene. Hopefully we'll get more of him.
- The first episode drags a bit in the middle and appears to be almost literally a video game when he first gets to the planet and must figure out how to ride a Blerg. I swear I've played this sequence a hundred times in a hundred different games. The Blergs don't exactly look great either, but they're a small part of the episode.
- The best part of the episode is the appearance of the IG bounty hunter droid (presumably not IG-88). It's great to see him in action, and there's some humorous bits with him attempting to self-destruct. I was kinda hoping that he'd be a recurring character and that he'd always be triggering his self-destruct mechanism at even the faintest obstacle. This clearly won't happen, but I suspect we'll see other IG droids.
- The "reveal" at the end is pretty good. I wasn't expecting it, but it's not exactly a surprise either.
- The second episode is only 33 minutes long, which is interesting. It doesn't really progress the story much, but it's still entertaining, and we learn more about baby-Yoda-alien-thing. It also has a very nice Lone Wolf and Cub vibe that works well.
- Basically, I'm quite entertained. It mostly meets the needs I set out in my Humble Star Wars Wishlist: It's not a prequel, it's got completely new characters (though it still relies on the worldbuilding of the movies), and so far, it's relatively low stakes. As mentioned above, it's got a lot of potential. I'd love to see some process-dork stuff about bounty hunting, but so far, that's been a bit sparse. The action is reasonably well done and the acting is good, especially given that our hero has not taken off his mask (and probably won't).
- Disney+ is pretty good so far, but right now it's basically just "The Mandalorian" service, as the other interesting original content doesn't come until next year and the year after. It's great to have most of the MCU movies archived, but it's not like they weren't widely available before. Ditto Star Wars and Pixar. Some of the older Disney animation stuff is cool, but there's some inexplicable stuff too, like what they did to The Simpsons (which is abysmally cropped, but also somehow feels stretched?) All in all, I'm not sure if this service is a keeper or not, but for now, it's decent... I'd probably recommend waiting until the Mandalorian is finished, and binging during the free week or first month or something.
- The Restrained Genius of a Joe Pesci Performance - Nice profile of Pesci; includes this offhand anecdote that is hysterical:
After frequently lamenting the typecasting and grind of set life in interviews, he went into semiretirement to focus on jazz (under the pseudonym Joe Doggs), his family and golf. Even Louis C.K. at the height of his pre-scandal fame couldn’t coax Pesci to work with him; instead, Pesci told him that he should quit doing stand-up because he wasn’t funny.(emphasis mine) Heh.
- Being prepared is overrated: start before you feel ready - Just getting started is often the most difficult part.
Being successful is not about your ability to plan, but your ability to act. There will always be more planning to do, more scenarios to consider. Of course, it would be amazing to feel utterly ready. But the reality is that waiting until you feel ready may mean the opportunity to act has already passed.
You may make more mistakes at first if you decide to start acting before you feel ready, but the long-term compound effect of learning from these mistakes will get you closer to your goals than any amount of preparation. The illusion of a perfect time to start is holding you back. Anyone who has managed to put their work into the world most likely started before they were ready.
- History and Guardians of the Galaxy Mashup - It's easy to look at social media and stuff like TikTok and think we're doomed, but then you see stuff like this. Which is silly, to be sure, but still great.
- Martin Scorsese on Late Night with Conan O'Brien (1996) - Forget about Scorsese on Marvel, check out Scorsese on Cats! Also, I forgot about how weird Conan's show used to be.
- How They Expect You to React When You get an Amber Alert - Heh.
- I Built a COMPUTER in Magic: The Gathering - Magic is Turing complete.
- Necroscope by Brian Lumley - Yet another magical Harry (who predates both Harrys Potter and Dresden), Harry Keogh can talk to dead people. As he grows up, he befriends the dead and learns much about life from them. His teachers are suspicious at Harry's ability to suddenly become an expert, but do their best to encourage Harry's talents. Eventually Harry learns of his mother's death at the hands of a Soviet spy and hatches a plan for revenge, which ultimately embroils him into a conflict between the British ESPionage service (get it? ESP stands for extra-sensory perception but are also the first three letters in the word espionage! This is one of those simultaneously dumb but also endearing qualities that neatly encapsulates this book's charms.) and their Soviet counterparts. Speaking of which, Boris Dragosani is a Soviet Necromancer. While Harry can speak with the dead, Boris can gain information from a dead body by mutilating its remains. He gained this power from a long-imprisoned vampire, Thibor Ferenczy. Together, they have plans for, well, let's just say world conquest. Alright, from the short description here, I think you can gather that this is an exposition-heavy book. As these things go, Lumley is pretty solid at it and as a longtime SF reader, long bouts of exposition aren't entirely unwelcome, but it does get to be a bit longwinded here, and there are plenty of tangents that might not be strictly necessary. And once you get past that sort of bald exposition, you're left with vampires, Cold-War era espionage and spies, armies of the dead, and even wacky explorations of time and space in the form of the "Möbius Continuum". It's fun, is what I'm saying, if not particularly rigorous. It's also creepy, and at time verges on a Lovecraftian take on vampires, which is neat. It's shlocky and goofy, but a whole lot of fun and a good thing to read during the Halloween season. I read this as a teenager and remembered enjoying it, and it largely lives up to my memory, which is probably a good sign, and it made me want to read the next book in the series.
- Necroscope II: Vamphyri! by Brian Lumley - The spirit of Harry Keogh lives on in his son, Harry Jr. He can still speak with the dead and roam the Continuum, but only when his son is asleep. Harry learns that the vampire Thibor Ferenczy had infected a pregnant woman before he died, thus resulting in a sorta lesser vampire. Yulian Bodescu retains many vampiric abilities and slowly explores them as he grows up. Harry must thus learn more about Vampires, so he speaks with Faethor Ferenczy, the vampire who made Thibor, and gets a lot of the history of vampires. But of course Faethor is just as much of a master manipulator as Thibor, and Harry doesn't know if he can trust anything he learns. Meanwhile, the Soviets are rebuilding their operation and team up with the Brits to quash the threat posed by Yulian Bodescu. So yeah, you wouldn't think that there'd be much more exposition after the first book but... this book is also pretty exposition heavy. A large portion of it functions as a sorta prequel and origin story for Thibor Ferenczy, which isn't quite as interesting as the book wants you to believe. We learn a lot more about what vampires are and how they function, which is neat enough, I guess, but sometimes these things operate better with more vague descriptions. In general, I had less fun with this book, but it held a similar cheesy appeal. I will probably pick up the third book next year, but I wanted to get a little more variety in my bookish diet this year...
- The Wolf's Hour by Robert R. McCammon - Michael Gallatin is a master spy who comes out of retirement for one last mission during WWII. Oh, and did I mention that he's a werewolf? There are essentially two narratives here, one of Gallatin and his attempt to uncover and stop a secret Nazi Operation called Iron Fist. The other is the story of a young boy named Mikhail Gallatinov, a young boy who learns of his werewolf powers when his parents are killed during the Russian Revolution. He falls in with a pack of other werewolves who help him learn to control his powers. So this isn't quite the super-pulpy story it sounds like and the novel contains distressingly little werewolf action. However, what is there is great. McCammon isn't a great prose stylist, but he writes action well, even if there aren't werewolves involved (but even better when there are!) The novel is overlong, which messes with the pacing a bit, but is generally pretty interesting. I liked it better than Swan Song, which felt a little too schlocky. Someday, perhaps, I'll find that McCammon novel that has just the right proportions and isn't 200 pages too long. Still, this was a pretty good seasonally appropriate read, and the werewolf action that is there is great.
- Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson - Journalist Will Barbee is set to cover the return of a scientific expedition to Mongolia. Led by Barbee's former mentor Dr. Mondrick, the expedition has indicated that they've made a discovery that will "change everything". But before Mondrick can explain, he suddenly drops dead of a heart attack. All appearances point to a natural death, but Barbee suspects his new colleague, the exotic and strangely alluring redhead April Bell may have something to do with it. As Barbee starts to dig into the story, he learns of witches and werewolves and even gets taken in by some dreams that feel all too realistic. The mysteries eventually resolve into a question: Who is the Child of the Night? Barbee may not want to know the answer. Old school fantasy with a science fictional bent, attempting to put some rigor and explanation around what makes witches and werewolves tick, touching on probability, quantum theory, genetic engineering, and selective breeding. It gets a bit repetitive and Barbee seems a bit dense and unwilling to confront the obvious explanation for the strange events happening in the story, but it's entertaining enough and I like the SFnal explanations, even if they feel a bit old-fashioned at this point. It's perhaps not as spooky as most stories hitting these topics (and maybe the SF explanations undercut that aspect of the story), but it's suitably mysterious and the ending is pretty great.
- Gil's All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez - Duke and Earl are just passing through town in their pickup when they stop at a diner... which gets attacked by zombies. The diner's owner offers to pay them to resolve the little zombie problem she's been having, which makes sense because Duke is a werewolf and Earl is a vampire. So they set about learning who is summoning these zombies and to what end. Along the way, Earl falls in love with a ghost that's haunting the local graveyard. Short and sweet, this is a fun little horror comedy that sorta mashes up Joe Lansdale's Hap and Leonard stories with traditional supernatural tales and a dash of Lovecraftian terror. I wouldn't say that it has a particularly high joke density, but its funny when it wants to be, gory and creepy when it needs it, and it's all packaged together well.
- Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman - You've gotta love subtitles, and this one pretty much explains what the book is all about. At its best, it's a sorta Easy Riders, Raging Bulls style exploration of New Hollywood with a focus on horror filmmakers like George Romero, John Carpenter, Dan O'Bannon, Brian De Palma, and Wes Craven. What it covers, it does well, but it ultimately feels a bit shallow and too narrowly focused on the late 60s and 70s horror classics. When it gets to the mid-80s, Zinoman sorta provides a quick summary of the next 30 years, all in one chapter. It would have been nice to have seen a little more depth, even in the 70s era that the book focuses on. While you do need to hit those big rocks of horror (i.e. The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left, Halloween, etc...) and Zinoman is able to spend some time on influences ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to Mario Bava, mostly he's covering well tread ground. He does a good job covering the classics, to be sure, and there were a few tidbits that were new to me and made those sections worthwhile, but the best parts of the book are when he's covering more obscure movies, like Carpenter and O'Bannon's Dark Star or some of De Palma's less famous efforts. Of course, what I'm complaining about here is a sin of omission. What's there is great... I just wanted more of it! And perhaps there's room for Zinoman to expand on his premises with a deeper dive into 80s and 90s horror (and heck, let's expand on the 00s too). This book is well worth reading for fans, and you'll certainly get some insight into how and why horror evolved the way it did. Again, I just wish it kept going...
- Tales of Halloween - Horror anthology set on Halloween night. As usual, the segments are uneven.
- I Trapped the Devil - A couple visits the family hermit... only to find that he's locked someone up in the basement, claiming he's the devil. Simple premise stretched out to feature length, very slow moving pace, well photographed and atmospheric, but derivative and a little unsatisfying in the end. A much better take on the story is The Twilight Zone episode The Howling Man, which covers similar ground in a mere 25 minutes. **
- Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween - I was pleasantly surprised by the first Goosebumps a few years ago, and it's always good to break up the monotonous despair of watching a lot of horror movies with something a little more fun, but it turns out that this movie inherits little of the charm of the first movie, and it feels a lot more like the soulless pixel stew I originally feared. That being said, it's still light and fun and easygoing, which fits well inbetween the horrors of the season. **
- The Ghoul - Borderline cromulent Boris Karloff programmer about an Egyptologist on his deathbed who has a plan for immortality. Or something like that. Good setup and premise, but it loses its way about halfway through. Fortunately, it's pretty short, and it picks up again towards the end (which is, alas, abrupt and leaves some threads hanging). **
- Deadtectives - A crew of television ghost hunters who've been faking things get trapped in a genuinely haunted location. Hijinks ensue. Hardly an original concept, but it's a very well executed iteration on the idea, and it's a winning combination of horror and comedy that scratches that Ghostbusters itch (you know, the one not scratched by the recent reboot). ***
- King Kong - Seen it before, but I'm always struck by how much of a spectacle this movie must have been at the time. The effects actually hold up reasonably well now, they must have been mind-blowing at the time. Some all time great shots too. Well worth rewatching (or watching for the first time, if you haven't...) ***
- Night of Terror - Borderline croumulet Bela Lugosi programmer about relatives forced to stay the night at a haunted mansion in order to read a will (a trope that's largely disappeared), only people keep showing up dead. A little meandering but it picks up towards the end and the finale is pretty fantastic (as is the coda). **1/2
- 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene - Documentary that is laser focused on the 78 shots and 52 cuts that comprise the shower scene in Psycho. Mostly talking heads dissecting the scene, but pretty informative and interesting deep dive that somehow manages to sustain the feature film runtime. **1/2
- Shaun of the Dead - Gets funnier every time I watch it. One of those rare parodies that represents a genuinely good example of the genre even while it lampoons all the tropes. ***
- Raw Meat (aka Death Line) - Cannibals living in old subway lines in London! It's got a pretty great and underrated Donald Pleasence performance as the police detective in charge, but is otherwise pretty forgettable. **
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night - A US production of a story set in Iran, starring mostly Iranian actors speaking Farsi. A lonely female vampire meets a lonely Iranian dude, and they have a sorta connection. Pretentious and artsy fartsy stuff, but reasonably well done. Not really my thing, but I can respect what's going on here... (and watching the version on Shudder with Joe Bob Briggs' commentary speckled throughout helped greatly...) **
- Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer - This has been on my "to watch" list for a long time, but I never really went out of my way to watch it because of it's reputation as a really hard-to-watch movie. And this tale of serial killers certainly lives up to its reputation.
- Happy Death Day - Revisiting this one a couple years later, and it's still all good fun, even if it's not exactly the most accomplished horror/Groundhog Day hybrid. Perfectly cromulent entertainment, with a winning cast, and decent enough execution. ***
- X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes - Dude working on a revolutionary eye treatment loses funding and decides to try the experimental drug on himself, which works, but also drives him a little batty. Short, early Roger Corman shlock elevated a bit by Ray Milland's lead performance. **1/1
- The Silence of the Lambs - I've already said my piece on this one and it's apparently my most rewatched movie of the past few years. It's a longtime favorite of mine that has only grown in my estimation with each rewatch. ****
- Vacancy - A grieving couple on the verge of divorce get stuck at a motel, where they discover a bunch of video tapes that turn out to be snuff films... set in their hotel room! The whole bickering couple thing is grating for sure, but once the premise gets going (which, to be sure, is pretty far into the movie) it evolves into a very competent and well staged thriller. Plenty of creepy tension, and the protagonists don't make a ton of stupid decisions either. Not quite a classic, but well worthwhile. **1/2
- Zombieland: Double Tap - The sort of sequel that doesn't really add much to the original and isn't really necessary, but which comports itself just fine, I guess. The conventions established in the first movie are starting to wear a little thin, but some new characters inject some vitality and energy into the proceedings, most notably Zoey Deutch as the ditzy blond (Rosario Dawson shows up, but isn't really given much to do). All in all, this sort of bland horror comedy actually works well to break up the steady stream of misery you sometimes get when watching a lot of horror movies, so it worked well enough for me, but there's absolutely nothing necessary about this movie. Even if you liked the first, you might not get a whole lot out of this one, but I thought it was fine. Damning with faint praise, maybe, but again, fine. **1/2
- Critters - After the abysmal Critters 3 I caught up with the original, and damn, I forgot how fun it was. I kept meaning to catch up with Critters 2 at some point, but that eluded me... To be sure, it's not like this is a classic or fine cinema or anything, but it's well executed for what it is and a whole lot of fun. **1/2
- Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film For some reason, I end up watching this documentary about slasher movies every year. It's a fine overview, and for a while it was good to consult for ideas of what to watch, but at this point, I think I've seen the grand majority of the films covered. **1/2
- Final Girl - Neat idea, poor execution. Sorta like a mashup of La Femme Nikita and the relatively obscure No One Lives, this is about a group of predatory assholes who lure women to the woods and then hunt them a la the most dangerous game. Only this girl is ready for the experience and turns the tables on her would-be attackers. The structure of the film itself kinda spoils the idea at its heart and it's not a particularly inspired film, but it's not as bad as the reviews would have you believe. I had enough fun with it, I guess... **1/2
- That Guy Dick Miller - Documentary about Dick Miller, the guy you've probably seen in a million low budget horror flicks, as well as the occasional mainstream hit (most famous for Gremlins and that one scene as the gun shop owner in The Terminator). The documentary covers his career with mostly talking head interviews and clips from his many appearances (he currently has 182 appearances listed on IMDB). Miller died early this year, so I'm glad I caught up with this. Not really a horror movie, but Miller was in a ton of horror movies... **1/2
- A Bucket of Blood - Speaking of Dick Miller, this is one of his rare starring roles. He plays a busboy and aspiring sculptor who accidentally kills a cat, and in panic, covers it with the plaster. But his friends see the cat and think it's a startlingly realistic scultpure. Suddenly the talk of the town, Miller's character needs to find new subjects, human subjects! Really quite entertaining little flick, with a pointed view of beatniks and the whole art scene. I really enjoyed it. ***
- Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror - As previously mentioned, this was the inspiration for Week 5 of this year's marathon, and it provides a pretty good overview of black horror. Once again, mostly talking heads and clips from movies, this one at least has Ken Foree and Keith David bouncing off of each other, which is fantastic. It might overstate some things or be a bit myopic, but it's well worth a watch. ***
- The Fury - Brian De Palma's follow up to Carrie, this one concerns a father played by Kirk Douglass trying to rescue his son, who has psychic powers and was kidnapped by the government in order to make him into a super spy or soldier or whatever. Lots of big names and clearly a big budget (for the time) elevate the schlocky material a bit, and De Palma's visual flair helps too (though his portrayal of action hasn't matured yet). It loses steam a little bit as it progresses, but it ends on a final shot that's pretty fantastic. ***
- Dead Heat - Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo are cops who have been running into nigh indestructible zombies and investigate where they're coming from. In the process, Williams becomes a zombie himself, and more hijinks ensue. It's dumb 80s fun all the way down. A lot of the humor doesn't exactly age well, though I'm not sure it was particularly great at the time either. Still, there are some laughs here and there, and it's a fun enough concept. **1/2
- Document of the Dead - Features behind the scenes footage from Dawn of the Dead that was originally conceived of as a reference for other filmmakers, the project eventually grew to encompass an overview of George Romero's entire career. Its ramshackle origins are kinda felt while watching it, as it feels disjointed and lacking in cohesion... but it's got lots of decent info too, so it's still worth watching if you're a fan of Romero and zombie movies...
- Halloween - This is an annual rewatch, usually on the titular day, but a little early this year because of the Halloween Hootenanny on Shudder with Joe Bob Briggs. There's little to be said about the movie at this point, but I appreciated Briggs' commentary throughout. Oh heck, I might just have to break out the 4K BD tomorrow anyway. ****
- Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers - Also prompted by the Halloween Hootenanny, I haven't seen this in a long time. I was struck by a few things. One, both the beginning of this movie and the ending of this movie are damn near perfect. The opening is atmospheric and creepy and does a good job getting the series back into the Michael Myers mode; the ending has an unexpected but great sorta symmetry with the callback to the original. It's a good ending by itself, but it also leaves some interesting avenues for the inevitable sequel. Another thing I love is the old preacher guy, fantastic little scene that I didn't remember being that effective. Myers seems to be much more industrious this time around. He's not just blindly charging in after babysitters, he's shrewdly planning his approach, taking out phone lines, eliminating the threat of police, killing the power to the whole town. Only then does he start his more targeted killing spree. I'm being a little facetious here, as this isn't really a great movie, but as a sequel, it could be a lot worse. **1/2
- Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers - Remember five seconds ago when I said that the ending for part 4 left some interesting avenues available for the sequel? Yeah, they apparently didn't seize on any of said avenues. This isn't quite the absolute disaster that I remember it being, but it's also, well, not really good at all. There are some isolated things I like well enough. The look of Myers is better in this one. I kinda like the opening of the movie, even if it is a little retconny. The weird hermit that lives in a shack by the river is always a fun touch. And while the dude with the pointy boots is a complete non-sequitur and doesn't really pay off, there's something there that could have maybe worked? I dunno, unfortunately the grand majority of this movie is just plain bad. *
- Haunt - A bunch of college students head to a remote haunted house on Halloween, and of course it turns out that the people running the haunted house are crazy murderers who have trapped our protagonists in their little death maze thing. Sorta like a combo of Hell Fest, Saw, and, um, a million other movies. So it's not the most original premise, and there are some stupid character decisions from time to time, but it is about as well executed as you could hope. I enjoyed it quite a bit, even if it's not, like, a new classic or anything. **1/2
- Hack-O-Lantern - Pure 80s cheese with a satanic panic plot, high-schoolers who look like they're 35 years old, so-bad-its-good acting chops, and a delightfully unhinged performance from Hy Pyke as the grandpa/cult leader.
- Hatchet III - I've generally enjoyed this sorta throwback neo-slasher series. Of course, the sequels suffer a bit from diminishing returns, but they're still gory fun with the occasional wink. **1/2
- Trick 'r Treat - The other annual night-of-Halloween watch, this is on the docket for tomorrow night. I still really enjoy this movie quite a bit, and it's always torture hearing about the rumored sequel, which is "actually happening" every time I check, but it's been almost a decade, so I'm guessing it will never see the light of day. Or, uh, the dark of a theater. Yeah. ***1/2
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: The Shinning
- How Scream Should Have Ended (short)
- The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (trailer)
- The Case of the Bloody Iris - A supermodel (played by Fenech, natch) and her goofy friend move into an apartment whose previous tenant was brutally murdered in the elevator (in a sequence that would be recalled in later films). Naturally, the criminal is now after Fenech. Pretty standard Giallo setup here: some dude murdering women, cue the final girl and loads of red herrings. And boy, are there a lot of red herrings here. There's the architect who is terrified of blood, the elderly neighbor who's hiding her deformed and mentally unstable son, and of course, the aggressive lesbian neighbor, amongst others.
- Rosemary's Baby (trailer)
- The Netherbeast of Berm-Tech Industries, Inc. (Short)
- The House of the Devil (trailer)
- All the Colors of the Dark - Beautiful Jane (played by Fenech) is suffering from grief. Her mother died when she was young and she recently lost her baby in a car crash. Now she's being tormented by dreams of a terrifying killer. Her boyfriend (George Hilton) thinks the solution is vitamin supplements(!?) Her sister thinks she just needs to see a psychiatrist. So naturally, Jane ends up siding with her neighbor, who is a satanist and who promises to solve all of Jane's problems if she'll just participate in a black mass or two.
- Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (trailer)
- Don't (fake trailer)
- The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave (trailer)
- The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh - Newly married Julie movies back to Vienna, where there's a sex criminal on the loose who's murdering women. Soon, it feels like the murderer is after her. Could it be her husband? Maybe her sadistic ex-boyfriend? Or perhaps her current lover plays some role?
Vintage Science Fiction Month is an annual call to celebrate, read, and discuss "older than I am" Science Fiction. I've participated in this for the last few years and have found the process rewarding. This non-challenge was the brainchild of Andrea from Little Red Reviewer, and this year, there's been a concerted push to get more participation, which is why I'm posting this now. It's never too early to start thinking about what you want to read and discuss. The only real rule for participating is that you do so in January.
Gothic horror novels like The Castle of Otranto or more famously Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus contain the roots of what would become science fiction, even if the genres eventually diverged considerably. Other nineteenth century authors, like Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Luis Stevenson, made similar forays beyond normal horror tropes to include science-related activities.
If you look in a bookstore, though, you probably won't find this stuff in the science fiction section. This separation of horror from science fiction is a marketing decision, but then, that's the point of genres in the first place. Assigning a work to a genre generates a set of expectations in the reader. Such expectations can manifest as tropes, codes, references, and even expressive prose techniques, all in service of providing the reader with an experience consistent with genre conventions. While both genres often portray spine-tingling confrontations with a terrifying unknown, the chief difference between them is not the events depicted, but how the response to those events is characterized. The horror or gothic response is generally one of acceptance and surrender, while science fiction's reaction is one of rational curiosity. To drastically simplify the sitation: horror thrives in a lack of understanding while science fiction sees such threats as a challenge to be overcome, a problem to be solved. These are generalizations, of course, and there are certainly exceptions and cross-genre exercises that straddle the line. As science fiction matured though, these distinctions became more pronounced.
If you read vintage SF and gothic fiction, you can see this transition happening in the early 20th century, and accelerating once John Campbell took over editing duties for Astounding. Funnily enough, Campbell's most famous story from his time as an author is Who Goes There?, a fantastic horror story turned into SF by the way in which the characters confront the shapeshifting "Thing" from another planet. It's telling that filmic adaptations of this story emphasize the horror elements by instituting a more ambiguous ending not present in the story (in which the terrifying alien is now understood and rationality is re-established). In any case, Campbell's work as an editor did transform science fiction and hasten the divergence between horror and science fiction.
Overlaps between the two genres are still common, of course, but often as a way to emphasize which genre we're really in. Take William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist; pretty definitively categorized as horror, but when you actually read the book, a very large amount of time is spent on ruling out more mundane, science-based explanations for the situation. Indeed, the notion that something is happening that science cannot explain is part of what makes the story scary (though there are other things that also contribute). You see this technique in a lot of horror stories to this day, but what makes them good horror is that the problem is often left unsolved or at least, poorly understood. Even when an evil is defeated, it's often portrayed as a short-term, localized victory and that the evil will likely return.
So what are some examples of vintage SF novels that tackle horror tropes from a science fictional perspective (or science fiction tropes from a horror perspective)? Here's a few recommendations:
- I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954) - This study in isolation and grim irony leans heavily on science fiction tropes; for instance, it takes the normally supernatural explanation for vampires and turns it into a communicable disease (i.e. something that can be studied and possibly cured). The plot eventually slants more towards horror, but it's difficult to explain why without spoiling the story. Nevertheless, it's a pretty fantastic novel worth reading this time of the year. Also of note, various film adaptations of this novel do not hold up very well when compared to the source material, so don't write this off because you didn't like the movie.
- Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon (1961) - Another story I don't want to spoil, but one which starts mundane, verges on supernatural, then pulls back and posits a purely psychological explanation for the events of the story. I read this a couple years ago for my annual Six Weeks of Halloween marathon, and was quite pleased with it. It makes for a good companion piece with I Am Legend as well (while that one posits a physiological explanation for the seemingly supernatural, this one posits a psychological explanation). It's a little slow and may not be as surprising or twisty to a modern audience, but I really enjoyed it.
- The Professor's Teddy Bear by Theodore Sturgeon (1948) - A short story about a time-bending vampiric maybe-alien Teddy Bear, this one is a little more mind-bendy and difficult to categorize, but it's short and fun and seasonally appropriate.
- The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft (1928) - Probably more horror than SF, but Lovecraft's entire oeuvre is generally based on the SFnal notion of a rational universe... it's just that, as humans, we can only perceive or tolerate a small portion of that reality. That sort of ecstatic surrender to blasphemous, unknowable terror is certainly not an SF response, but Lovecraft often managed to use SFnal notions to underline his work.
- Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson (1948) - I'm currently reading this novel (just because Vintage SF month is in January doesn't mean you can't read any of it for the rest of the year!), so I will reserve judgement for later, but it does inject science fictional elements into a story featuring witches and werewolves. Indeed, so far, the novel seems to be squarely within the SF tradition moreso than horror, positing explanations based on quantum theory and probability (for a more modern and less horror-based take on this, see The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.) as well as genetic engineering and selective breeding. I have reservations about some aspects of the story, but the SF elements are interesting. Of course, this was originally published in Unknown, which was John Campbell's dumping ground for less rigorous SFnal or fantasy tales.
We could go on like this forever. There's a lot to unpack within each genre, and we could spend years ferreting out what makes each of them tick. I'm a big tent guy and I enjoy both genres, so I'm more than happy in that fuzzy space between the genres... but I can see the benefits of taking a stricter approach as well. In some ways, Horror and SF are diametrically opposed in their goals and aspirations, and it's worth considering that. I've read plenty in both genres, but there's always room for more knowledge, which is one reason I participate in Vintage Science Fiction Month. It's only a couple months away, so you best start planning your reading for January now too!
- White Zombies (Key & Peele)
- Get Out (trailer)
- Horror Noire (trailer)
- Vamp - I made note of this movie back when the documentary came out, but as it turns out, it's not even in the movie. It is, however, in the book, and I must have read people talking about it in the wake of the documentary or something. This movie is about two fraternity pledges tasked with procuring some strippers to perform for the frat, so they head to a strip club in the big, bad city and immediately run afoul of gangs, albinos, and as the title would imply, vampires. Perhaps because I actually haven't watched that much 80s horror this year, this feels like the most 80s movie to ever 80s. Neon colors and bad fashion galore, with lots of other more thematic 80s signifiers sprinkled in for good measure. What starts as a sex comedy sorta transmogrifies into light 80s horror, making for a somewhat inconsistent tone, but something that evokes films like An American Werewolf in London and probably influenced From Dusk Till Dawn (even if both of those are better movies that more deftly switch between modes). So why is this Horror Noire? Because of the absolutely perfect casting of Grace Jones as stripper/Vampire Queen.
- Night of the Living Dead (trailer)
- Walking Dead Chappelle's Show (SNL)
- Candyman (trailer)
- Tales from the Hood - Supremely pissed off anthology film with a wraparound set in a mortuary with Clarence Williams III's Funeral Director telling a trio of gang members four stories, each of which is presented as a segment. There's nothing subtle at all about each segment, which confront racial issues head-on, including police brutality and corruption, domestic violence, white supremacist politicians, the prison system, and gang warfare.
- Sexy Vampires (Key & Peele)
- Abby (trailer)
- Ganja & Hess (trailer)
- Blacula - An 18th century African prince named Mamuwalde visits Transylvania to meet with none other than Count Dracula in an effort to negotiate an end to the slave trade. Naturally, Dracula is a racist, so negotiations grind to a halt when he bites Mamuwalde, turns him into a vampire, imprisons his princess, and dubs him "Blacula". A couple centuries later, Dracula has long since been defeated by Van Helsing, and a pair of interior decorators purchase Dracula's castle with the intention of selling off all its antique contents as campy decorations in the new world. Among the belongings they inherit is Mamuwalde's locked up coffin, which is transported to L.A., whereupon Blacula is awakened. He's obviously hungry, but also heartbroken at the loss of his love, who appears to have been reincarnated in the form of a woman named Tina.