In my short story Unto The Earth I attempted to integrate symbolism that served as both foreshadowing and “easter eggs” of a sort, in that they gave the story what I hoped is a connected sense of doom that cannot be forestalled; karma that must be satisfied.
In case you haven’t read the story and don’t want it spoiled, stop reading now and find it in Sekhmet Press’ Wrapped In Black anthology, or just skip this installment.
Our protagonist Lyle is a decent guy who suffered a severe, memory-robbing accident. Brought back to physical health by the patient love of a nurse named Agnes, he has fallen in love and married the Haitian beauty, only to find himself falling into uncontrollable fits of rage he takes out on her.
Lyle is something of a partial man; missing pieces of his psyche that might give his life, already ideal on the outside, the meaning that would fill a vast hole in his soul. The first easter egg is his dog ; another slice of normal pie that should fit easily into a very simple puzzle. But I chose for the dog to be black, and named him Shucky. If you’re familiar with supernatural lore you might know of the Anglo legend called the Black Shuck; a massive demonic dog, black of course. Encountering or even just seeing the beast is said to foretell of death, either to the seer or his/her immediate family.
So “Shucky,” even as a seemingly harmless family pet, is a portent of death to give the story an early sense of the supernatural mixed in with the commonality of Lyle’s everyman (apologies for this cliche’) life. In retrospect, it seems rather wedged in. Something closer to the story’s vodun (voodoo) connection would have been more appropriate. Still, Shucky plays his role and adds some spice.
Lyle also visits a therapist to discuss his growing outbursts of abusive rage. Absently, he handles a figurine replica of a Mesopotamian fertility goddess. Maternity -of a kind- is also a theme, and with the goddess now hovering in the reader’s subconscious, the finale will theoretically carry its weight and imbue a sense of connections, a thread that weaves in and out of the tale along with many others to make a whole cloth.
I was intrigued to see, some months later, a similar scene in the film “Hellions,” whose antagonist is a teen who fears she is pregnant. The girl visits a counselor. As the session winds down, she sees a decorative sculpture on the desk that begins to seep blood. There is no further discussion of this; the narrative simply moves on. While we watch the movie with most of our brain another part continues to ponder this image, becoming more and more uneasy.
A funny thing about symbolism is that once you’re aware of it, you start seeing it everywhere and pondering what a seemingly meaningless placement of an item or color or sound might actually mean. Symbols will seem to present themselves in your daily life. Make of that what you will, but this awareness can translate to your writing . Many authors (or screenwriters/directors) when learning of symbolic meaning that has been read into their work, will deny that it was ever their intent. However, if symbolism is deeply subconscious, would even they know?
More on the Black Shuck:
Call it simple instinct.
We see a snake or a spider and our initial reaction is revulsion — because we perceive it as a threat. Our ancestors learned the hard way, in countless separate tribes, that some creatures are dangerous, others are not. Few of us fear budgies or warblers for instance and might even find them cute or otherwise pleasant. Yet, most spiders are much smaller than these birds, not to mention completely harmless to us. Still, we have a natural revulsion to them.
There is more to our little eight legged boogieman than we see at first glance. Spiders have eight legs and eight eyes. The number eight has significance in many esoteric belief systems, and we are aware of this too, though at a deeper level. Numbers mean something to us beyond the amount of things they count. Some people even see numbers in terms of gender or even color or taste.
When you put a spider in your story, the reader’s natural fear or negative baggage will arise, and you must take advantage of this. Thus, a spider can represent something related to the number eight. Perhaps your protagonist is an outlaw in a western, riding across the desert to start a new life. He encounters a tarantula and gets a bad feelin’. Well, turns out there’s a posse on his trail; eight hard men, aimin’ to kill.
Let’s take it a step further; our hero brings down his knife, severing one of the spiders’ legs. But it gets away; he either chose not to kill it or simply wasn’t able. Of his pursuers, one is an adversary whom he wounded and should have killed.
This also falls into the realm of both foreshadowing and subtext. But the important thing is — you never spell it out. Some readers might catch it but most won’t — yet their subconscious will, and the reader will have a richer experience. It’s like the barest pinch of a spice in a stew that takes the whole meal from “delicious” and elevates it to “unforgettable!”
This is an entry level example of symbolism, which admittedly, is pretty much where I am. But it’s a start, and if you want your story to work beyond just the gut level -meaning a pure celebration of scares and gross outs and shock factor, which is just as legitimate a form of horror I might add, in the same way that slapstick is just as powerful a form of comedy as the most sophisticated Greek tragicomedy- then it’s not a bad idea to research symbolism.
NEXT TIME: Part 2. Duh.
The latest from Patrick C. Greene and Hobbes End Publishing – THE CRIMSON CALLING – Centuries after their eradication and the death of their Queen in the Great Fire of London in 1666, the Vampire population now numbers in only the hundreds. A few of the remaining survivors regrouped and a High Council was born. Now a new threat has arrived: modern day military is not only tracking members of the council, they are attempting to create their own vampire soldiers.
Enter Olivia Irons. Ex Black Ops. Doing her best to live a normal civilian life, but it never feels right. No family, no friends, and trouble always seems to follow. When the Sanguinarian Council offers her the chance of a lifetime, the biggest risk of all seems like the only path left to choose. How will she answer The Crimson Calling?
If the Avengers and The Expendables franchises have taught us anything, it’s that more is better, or at least…morier. And while horror fans may enjoy the classic scenario of a small group facing a singular implacable menace, sometimes it’s fun to engage in sensory overload via a film filled to the face with a variety of menaces.
This list focuses on the over-the-top monster mashes that leave us sated like scary smorgasbords. No ALIENS, STARSHIP TROOPERS, zombies or other multitudes of the same species here; the following focus on flicks with several different kinds of monsters.
Back in 1933, horror and monster pictures were just beginning to take hold and prove their box office worth. But Universal’s nascent house of black and white horrors must surely have paled (literally) in comparison to RKO’s monster fest KING KONG. O’Brien had worked on a silent adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE LOST WORLD nearly a decade earlier, but comparatively speaking, KONG was light years ahead in the FX department, featuring stop motion special effects work by Willis O’Brien that included not only the titular monster monarch but a stegosaur, bronto(or pleisio?)saur, styracosaur, a giant lizard and the triple threat of an allosaurus, eel monster and pterosaur engaging Kong in epic battles.
As if that wasn’t enough. O’Brien and crew devised an icky menagerie of smaller insect and reptile critters that attacked crew members forced off a log bridge and into a swampy pit by Kong. Reportedly, this scene was deemed too horrific by studio suits, so it wound up on the floor. Sadly, that footage is long lost.
In 2005, Universal released a fun -if overlong- remake created by The Lord of The Rings director Peter Jackson and his New Zealand effects house WETA, which featured more of everything, including the pit scene.
This would not be Jackson’s first shot at the infamous sequence though, as he lovingly recreated the lost footage based on the original script and various descriptions. See it here!
THE BLACK SCORPION
There was plenty of dino-filled matinee fare after KONG, though most were not nearly as well realized. Japanese films mostly just pitted single monsters (including Kong) against their reigning champion Godzilla until the mid-sixties, but this entry in the giant bug brigade, coming in 1957, brought back O’Brien and his creepy stop-mo aesthetic for a unique, if rather cheap effort that, aside from the titular mutants (their were actually many of the big arachnids) presented an unnerving subterranean sequence filled with spiders and worms that had all the nuclear age housewives shaking out their bouffants and sleeping with their kids’ Daisy BB repeaters for months.
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS!
Japan’s Toho Studios followed Universal’s formula of one film containing multiple monsters in 1965 by bringing their Big Three, Godzilla Rodan and Mothra, together to battle the new menace of GHIDORAH THE THREE HEADED MONSTER but it wasn’t until 1968 that they assembled no less than eleven kaiju for a proper monster party set in the far away future of 1999, when daily moon trips were/will be the norm and all the giant menaces that have so plagued the world have been corralled onto a pacific island affectionately termed Monsterland. But as we all know, the future will bring with it alien contact, and in this case the aliens are hostile. They’ve devised a method to control the monsters and promptly release them to raze the world’s capitols. Godzilla and friends, Rodan, Mothra, Anguirus, Kumonga and many more, eventually turn face and help defeat the aliens but the enemy has an ace up their silvery sleeves: King Ghidorah. The space demon, vastly outnumbered, quickly succumbs, finally dying after three films. It’s fun to see the 90s through the eyes of the 60s, but all those monsters onscreen at once is a 12-year-old sci-fi geek’s dream come true.
AT THE EARTH’S CORE
Exploitation studio stalwarts American International and Amicus came together for this very very 70s B pic based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs tale featuring western star Doug McClure, Peter Cushing and the irresistible Caroline Munro, in a tiny animal skin bikini no less. The plot: Victorian era scientists ride a drill machine past the earth’s upper crusts, where they find a neolithic civilization enslaved by a race of rodent men who are in turn working for telepathic flying reptiles.
But wait, there’s more. Along the way, our heroes encounter dinosaur-like beasts unseen in the above-ground fossil record, such as a giant bulldog lizard thing, two bipedal wild boars fighting over a mansnack, a beaked allosaurus, a fire breathing toad, and a creepy carnivorous plant. The same producers followed up with the equally monster-filled THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT and WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS, but neither of those carries the weird charm of this bad boy.
GALAXY OF TERROR
Just get a look at the poster art and there can be no doubt that this ALIEN-inspired Roger Corman production, despite its budget shortcomings, delivers monsters galore, and yes, a full galaxy’s worth of terror, not to mention a cast to kill for: Robert Englund, Edward Albert, Ray Walston, Erin Moran and Sid Haig. But its Taafee O’Connell who is best remembered for the dubious distinction of being raped by a giant maggot thing. So yeah, this is that kind of flick. Quite a departure from the above-mentioned films in terms of subject matter. Aside from the maggot thing, there is a tentacled brain sucker, a malevolent disembodied arm, a glowy-eyed giant demon, sentient wires, Erin Moran minus epidermis, and… okay not as much monstrage as some of the previous flicks, but just the idea of a film trying to outgun ALIEN earns it those coveted monster mash points.
THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD
The legendary sailor and adventurer began his film career in 1958 with Ray Harryhausen at the helm of spectacular stop motion effects that, for my money, are his best work. Kerwin Matthews leads a cast of white folks playing Arabs doing battle with and running from, such monstrosities as Talos The Bronze Giant, a vicious horned cyclops, a two headed vulture, (aka a ‘Roc,’) a massive fire breathing dragon and an army of unsettlingly agile skeleton warriors. Spawned a handful of sequels, but none compare to the majesty and wonder of the original.
INFRA-MAN aka THE SUPER INFRAMAN
OMG, ya’ll — a Chinese kung fu/sci-fi/monster flick? No further sales pitch needed. An ancient subterranean troupe of intelligent and malevolent monsters (hmm…kinda like NIGHTBREED, but much better at jump kicks) rises to overtake the world and install as its ruler The Princess Dragon Mahm, a seriously bad bitch with a hand that is a dragon’s head sprouting a tongue for a whip. …FUCK yeah. That’s not all she has up her sleeve — er, reptile…arm/neck. She turns into a full blown winged dragon that can re-grow its head, countless times! So, a scientist creates an implant or something that allows bad ass Danny Lee to turn into the titular hero via a series of aerial flips. Just in time too, because the princess’ horrific hordes are as brutally destructive as they are ugly. Infra-Man’s seemingly unlimited powers serve him in battle against: a reptilian bulldog/gorilla beast with one metal drill hand and one metal boxing glove! A green tentacled fellow who can plant himself like a seed and sprout to Godzillian heights as a bundle of flailing tentacles! An orange bipedal arachnid who traps dudes in web spheres! An armor plated demon with a red mustache! A chick with eyes in her hands, that, of course, shoot lasers! Infra-Man is obviously China’s answer to Ultraman, Kamen Rider and countless other Japanese heroes, but I have to admit — I’ve always liked INFRA-MAN better than any of those shows.
More MONSTER MASHES to come!
Today we are excited to bring you a guest blog post from our very good friend and author Bryan W. Alaspa! Take it, Bryan!
So, you’re a writer and you want to write young adult fiction. You are convinced that you have the stories, series or idea that will be the next Harry Potter, Divergent or Hunger Games. Great – but now what?
It’s a funny thing, but statistics show that more adults read stuff labeled “young adult” than the supposed demographic. As for what that demographic is, well, that varies too. Generally your tween years is when you get most of your young adult readers.
What does it mean to write that kind of fiction? The first thing you need to know is that your audience, even if they are tweens, do not want to be talked down to. They are very plugged into the world and they know that bad things happen. People die. People murder other people. Kids get killed. People have sex. So, eliminating all of that or using words you think a “kid” will appreciate will completely take them out of the story and toss your book aside.
I read an article once where Stephen King said if he had a chance to meet JK Rowling (he since has, but I don’t know if he ever asked this question) he would ask her about the Harry Potter books: When did you decide to stop writing them for kids and just to write them.
If you have read the series you know that happened. That first book just has a “kids” feel to it. It’s great adventure, but you can kind of tell this was meant for a younger audience. But, as the series went on, that sort of fell away. Ms. Rowling just told a tale with all of the violence and horror that fighting an evil creature like Voldemort would entail. It just happens that her characters are kids.
So, my advice would be to write the story that you have to tell. Author Judy Blume has been writing books for kids for decades and yet she has tackled very adult themes head-on in most of them. That should be your tactic, too.
My first YA novel was a supernatural romance called Sapphire. It had teenage protagonists and the style was a bit different than my more “adult” novels. I made the violence a tiny bit tamer, not going into such graphic detail. I even implied sex at one point, but did that in the way a PG-13 movie will show the coupe kissing and then slowly drift over to a curtain blowing gently in the wind and then fade to black.
In my most recent novel, The Lord of Winter, there is violence. There is a very scary villain. People die. That happens because for the amount of action and destruction that happens in the novel for it not to happen would not be realistic. The key is that I focus on the characters and don’t dwell on the blood and gore like I might in a horror novel.
Kids have to deal with adult things all the time. We are more plugged in today than ever before. Teens have iPhones and tablets and they see the terrorists, the 24 hour news coverage of shootings. They deal with the fact that a white dude with a beef can get easy access to a gun and walk into their school to try and work out his issues by killing a few dozen of them. So, to create a story that doesn’t live in that kind of world is lying to the reader. You don’t want your story to be dishonest.
Never talk down to them. Tell your story. If it’s a good one, they’ll listen. If it’s a really good one, hopefully they ask for more.
A few days ago my latest short story CINDERBLOCK released as an ebook. It’s unusual in a number of ways, most obvious being that it’s a horror story set in a sporting environment. As far as I know and with few exceptions, the closest horror has gotten to athletics is Jason donning a Detroit Red Wings goalie mask in Friday the 13th Part 3.
By now, it’s clear to most of my social media associates, readers and imaginary friends that I have a more than passing interest in martial arts and all forms of unarmed combat. Most horror writers are deeply peaceful folk who actually abhor violence, and while I share that perspective, there are few things I enjoy more than watching a good match between trained combat athletes, and on a good day, stepping onto the mat myself.
One of CINDERBLOCK’s principals is an old Polish fight trainer named Doc Lubinski, who is not unlike Burgess Meredith’s Mickey in the Rocky films. This is what people who spend too much time thinking about storytelling refer to as an archetype, which is a way of saying “stereotype” without sounding demeaning. But as a martial artist I’ve certainly had a few Doc Lubinski types expressing encouragement and enraged disappointment at my own humble efforts. By far, the most influential and colorful is Billy “Pops” Wicks, to whom the story is dedicated.
Pops, the son of Norwegian immigrants, took up wrestling in his teens and soon found himself working in traveling carnivals as the guy who takes on “all comers” while a top hatted barker riled up “marks” -local boys who wanted to impress their gal. Of course, the mark would never reach the Promised Land that lay under the skirts of their preferred farmer’s daughter. or if they did, it was out of sympathy. Pops’ job was to toy with them long enough to make it interesting, then to force a submission.
This style of wrestling is called Catch As Catch Can, more recently shortened to catch wrestling. I discovered it and Pops through another of his students, Pancrase* veteran Johnny Huskey.
As one might expect of any man from that rough post-depression era, Pops is salty, outspoken, and generally annoyed with how goddamn candy-assed contemporary fighters are. Unlike Brazilian jiu jitsu fighters, catch wrestlers are expected to stay off their backs when competing or fighting. So emphatic is Pops about this that he has been known to jab young pupils with straight pins if they don’t work out of the bottom position. Believe me, no matter how big or skilled your opponent is, you’ll find a way to escape if you see an angry-faced Norwegian man coming toward you with a straight pin. The pin you see, is to remind you that you’re being “pinned.”
Eventually wrestling changed, and Pops joined the movement toward choreographed action. If a wrestling star got a bit unmanageable among his peers and promoters, he might just find himself booked against Pops, which was a fast track to either humility or hospitalization
But my main point is that Pops loves wrestling, and he loves his wrestlers. To me, his very direct approach and reliance on simple yet brutal techniques is reminiscent of the legendary Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do fighting philosophy. In fact, Lee trained for some time with Gene LeBell, himself a catch wrestler, and a good many catch techniques are found in Lee’s Tao Of Jeet Kune Do.
When my first novel PROGENY was released, Pops excitedly bought and read it. If I may be a bit personal here, that was extremely gratifying for me, considering my own father died before its release. Pops exemplifies what a great teacher of any skill should be -a man who teaches boys how to be men, how to be honest, how to do everything as well as you can. There wasn’t time for the story’s Doc Lubinski to get a very wide arc in CINDERBLOCK, so it was important to me that his love for his pupils was apparent, that the reader would understand how much his boys, both the dead and the living, meant to him.
The boxing gym in CINDERBLOCK might itself seem sort of a cliche. But any inner city kid will tell you, that’s where you find them. The athletes of whatever culture that is most persecuted in any given historical era will gravitate to boxing, and because they have little other choice, they will excel. During Lubinski’s time it would have been the Polish, now it’s black and latino kids. The story’s protagonist O.C. is that kid who could easily have gone the wrong way, if not for “The Old Pole,” as I like to call him.
Doc is not based directly on Pops so much, but is my attempt to compress my understanding of the coach/pupil relationship into capsule form and make it believable enough to fuel the story proper. What I know of Mike Tyson’s relationship with Cus D’amato is also in there, maybe some Mister Miyagi, and of course — Mickey. 🙂
*Pancrase: A Japanese MMA promotion pre-dating the UFC that emphasized submission grappling over striking.
Wiki Billy Wicks
Well of course we watch horror films year-round. Duh! So as Halloween season approaches, with its pumpkin spice candles and orange lights and hay bales I, as a severe adult OCD, look for films with those same attributes to build Halloween atmosphere en route to the Big Night. You don’t qeue up “Schindler’s List” on Christmas Eve. You go with “Miracle on 34th” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Right?
Likewise, not just any Paranormal Activity sequel will suffice in the Greene domicile as October counts up. At the very least, some attempt at creating an autumnal atmosphere is first and foremost. (That is –until this very year; I’ll elaborate soon.) When our victims-to-be pile into a van and head off to, say, an abandoned mine to spook each other on what happens to be October 31st, I’m not necessarily interested.
This list and its comments are based on (A) connection and relevance to the holiday of Halloween and (B) whether I’ve seen the film or not (remember! I am NOT a professional film critic!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
So, if you’re on the hunt for horror films set on Halloween, (or within a few days) that are NOT John Carpenter’s famous blockbuster or any of its sequels, the following list, based on my personal satisfaction with it exists solely and entirely for you, my fall-loving fiend. Enjoy.
THE MIDNIGHT HOUR: ABC’s movie of the week from some October back in the eighties was this entertaining, even lovable TV party, with its Michael Jackson Thriller references, fun cast, great makeup FX and an ending that is surprisingly both wistful and downbeat.
HALLOW’S EVE: Not to be confused with the far superior ALL HALLOW’S EVE, (see below) this little ditty features god-awful improv disguised as acting and abominable clichés disguised as characters. A low budget is no excuse anymore; these guys could afford Danielle Harris so they should have been able to scrape together a few more bucks for a script doctor, at the very least.
THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT: The premise is a documentary crew investigating “edgy” independent Halloween haunts, descending into an ever seamier world of menacing and shady carny types. Sounds intriguing, but of course, it’s “found footage” which just doesn’t work at feature length anymore. So let’s be nice and chalk it up as a loss due to its dead format.
LADY IN WHITE: Nice atmospheric tale of a writer remembering that time he was locked in his school on Halloween night and encountered the ghost of a murdered girl. Nice sense of place and atmosphere.
ALL HALLOW’S EVE: A low budget horror anthology consisting of three tales set within the framework of a babysitter finding an unmarked videotape in the treat bag of one of her young charges, then foolishly watching it. The tales offer something a little unique, compared to more recent anthologies, and this will soon become a perennial favorite if you are of discerning tastes.
MISCHIEF NIGHT: Ol’ Doc Loomis (Jr.), Malcolm McDowell plays a neighborhood watchman who visits a wispy young housesitter to remind her to lock up tight, but you know how that goes. It’s not long before she’s playing cat and (vicious) mouse with a masked killer – but their fight doesn’t go as you might expect, so, recommended based on sheer originality.
MISCHIEF NIGHT: You’re not seeing double; this is the second of two films made within a year of one another and a good example of Generic Title Syndrome. (See also The Ritual x3) Emily has psychosomatic blindness, which won’t do her any favors when a crew of masked murderers show up to re-enact “You’re Next” on her hapless ass. Plenty of suspense, but nothing filling.
TRICK R TREAT: You cannot go wrong with this intertwined anthology of tales featuring the huggable Anna Paquin and original Hannibal Lecter Brian Cox. Little Sam becomes a new and fitting icon/mascot for the Eve, tormenting Cox’s character while Paquin’s confronts what appears to be a masked vampire.
HOUSE OF FEARS: Six teens sneak into a haunted attraction for some lulz, only to have the house’s characters seemingly become possessed by an evil force. Simple and fun, with suitable holiday thrills. Kind of like DARK HOUSE; not the Vic Salva one, but the other one with Jeffrey Combs, but maybe a little better.
DEATH ON DEMAND: Here then, is the bottom of the barrel: a slasher that manages to fail on every single level. Director Adam Matalon, a reality TV “director,” brings that fad’s cynical and soulless mentality to this unpleasant, condescending hate letter to horror fans, referencing Halloween only as a much-needed hook for suckers like me.
HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES: Rob Zombie’s films are a lot like his music in their multi-layered manic, carnival ride sensibility. Also, he’s deeply enamored with films from that magic stretch of cinema from between 1974 and around 1985, when most horror had a certain “outlaw” quality. While I’m not a fan of HOUSE’S sequel THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, I submit that this is a great Halloween-flavored flick with a little harder edge than the others on the list, and the rawness of a debut director’s labor of love.
DONNIE DARKO: This trippy and thoughtful psych thriller has more going for it than can be absorbed in one viewing, so fortunately there are two edits, the more recent of which I haven’t seen – an oversight I intend to correct. As for Halloween setting, how’s this: our protagonist has visions –through which he is guided by a super-creepy ghost in a rabbit suit -of the apocalypse occurring on that very night. Not so much a party movie, this is one for when trick or treating is over.
HALLOWEEN NIGHT: Wrongly convicted of murder, a man is institutionalized, then later, it’s Halloween and he’s out, and some youths are having a Halloween party where he used to live, and he has gone LITERALLY insane, so everyone must die. I can’t say it’s particularly surprising or memorable, and doesn’t really feel “Halloweeny.
NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1988): Director Kevin S Tenney scored a hit with this fun, trippy haunted house flick (actually, it’s set in an abandoned mortuary) about teens partiers summoning a demon as part of a Halloween party. Yes it’s dated, but makes for some good holiday cheer.
NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (2009): The remake from Adam Gierasch (who also co-wrote with Jace Anderson) amps up all the elements of the original with enjoyable results, favoring non-stop action over atmosphere and character development making for a fun party movie.
TRICK OR TREAT: (1986) More of a parody of the then-rising hysteria over heavy metal and backmasking and Carrie rip-offs than an actual horror movie and pretty much Halloween OT, so save it for eighties night, which will probably be its own official holiday eventually.
SATAN’S LITTLE HELPER: Director Jeff Lieberman hurls social commentary like hatchets, in a Halloween-set tale about a young videogame fanatic who can’t tell the difference between game and reality, (past the reasonable age for such an issue, mind you) so he winds up helping a mute serial killer. This and a few other glaring flaws will undercut your enjoyment, but it still manages to be entertaining and scary.
I was once lucky to catch a midnight showing of A Nightmare on Elm Street for which there was no advertising other than word of mouth. At the theater, deal was that you got in if you wore pajamas and the showing was free; just a few days before Hallo-You-Know-When.
The joint was packed, and no doubt some spirits were sneaking about, if you can detect the low notes of the tune I’m playing here…
But this wasn’t Rocky Horror. The only participation the film’s tight narrative would allow was terror — and it was palpable. When the nightmares began, and the claws scratched steel, we all went nuts as a unit, and not via the tossing of toast, or recitation of random lines – but by screaming and holding onto one another, acquainted or not.
It built from there. When Tina was dragged across the ceiling by the invisible force of a laughing Freddy – rewind that: yes, I said dragged across THE FUCKING CEILING, the joint collectively popped in a figurative orgasm of terror and release and youthful madness that must’ve shaken the entire multiplex. Those screams, well, I should say that singular collective scream, was shrill music to me. This, I realized, was a work of genius.
Story goes that a few studios rejected Nightmare because they felt that audiences wouldn’t care about events occurring in a dreamworld, versus “reality.” Seems to me those guys don’t really understand exactly what a film is meant to be, anyway.
Craven did. Like many of us horror freaks, Wes Craven came up in a religious household, banned from watching any films that weren’t from the Disney stamp pad. But of these, he favored Fantasia, itself a celluloid dream composed more of disjointed imagery set to classical music than a single narrative. It seems likely he was deeply affected by the Night on Bald Mountain sequence, with its towering devil figure (based on Bela Lugosi!) and Stygian landscape.
Last House on The Left came to me as a copy on VHS, which only added to its raw, cheap, snuff feel. A few years ago, the horror market became riddled with movies reflecting the shock and horror of torture murders committed and posted online by terrorists. Some of these “tort-sploitation” (“torture porn,” as you’ve probably seen me say, is not a legitimate term) films were rather effective, others not so much. But back in 1972, there wasn’t much of a precedent. Craven and his producer/partner Sean Cunningham were responding to the Vietnam war, a conflict equally as polarizing as our current campaigns and the first war to reach us with the immediacy of televised evening news.
Thus, it is an angry statement from passionate young filmmakers. No ghosts or living dead or vampires, this might have been a standard police thriller if not for the POV’s discomfiting submersion into the events concerning our victims, not to mention their tormentors. This gang, led by a sick bastard named Krug (sound vaguely familiar?) lures and assaults a pair of teen girls looking to score some weed.
But it doesn’t end there, (SPOILAGE ALERT!) as you probably know. Karma directs the crew to the very house where one of the vics’ parents live; and that necklace the degenerates stole from the girls as a keepsake is awwwwfully incriminating.
What follows next is, among other things, death by ferocious fellatio, death by sloppy dentistry and as far as I know, the first ever cinematic butchering of a human being via chainsaw, beating TCM to the punch by two full years.
It’s not an easy watch, even through the filter of cheap filming techniques. Its harsh impact upon one’s psyche is pretty much permanent, and it’s effectiveness as a cathartic release depends on the viewer I suppose. It’s probably a leap to think that the average viewer would detect the anti-war theme at work here, but then, that’s why it’ll never be called preachy. That’s where Craven excelled, and that’s why the tricky backdrop of the dreamworld gave him great opportunity for creating horror that works equally well on both visceral and subconscious levels.
There’s a lot of hate for 1988’s Shocker, and most of it is well-deserved. Studio control on this and a handful of other Craven flicks was far greater, and the creative results predictably suffer. Wes never conceived that the Nightmare films, and more significantly FK himself, would become iconic beyond nearly any previous horror film, and naively signed away rights to the character. It’s nice to think that, if he hadn’t, the watering down of the dream demon wouldn’t have been nearly as pervasive. No Fat Boys videos, no eye-rolling comic quips in the sequels.
However, if Shocker is any indication, Wes wasn’t above going for the commercial appeal; it’s pure paycheck. You can’t really blame him. But there is no denying that Shocker is –firstly- a cynical attempt to create another Freddy, only with Craven retaining creative control of the character, and secondly, maybe, just maybe, a bit of that Last House righteous anger showing itself in the form of a statement against commercial horror – in the form of very very commercial horror, sorta like Korn’s “Yall Wanna Single, Say Fuck That” single.
I think I’ll choose to believe the latter, because I know that ANOES and Hills Have Eyes and New Nightmare and even the Scream films were all sincere, and all impressive works, and I know that no director hits a homer at every bat, and because four or five great movies is damn sure a lot more than most directors will achieve.
MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT
Gareth Edwards, director of the original MONSTERS, as well as 2014’s GODZILLA re-stomp, produced this one presumably from afar, handing the reins to Tom Green, who is presumably not the Canadian comic. A bold attempt at recreating the more intimate approach to monster films that more or less worked last time, but unsatisfying.
THE MUSLIMS ARE COMING!
This doc chronicles the efforts of a handful of Muslim comedians to erase common misconceptions and bridge social gaps between Muslim Americans and, well, us not-Muslims, I guess. Interestingly, it turns out that the comedians’ fellow Muslims are the hardest nuts to crack. Funny and poignant.
GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS: UNDEFEATED
Apparently, this series has morphed from an edgy drama to a more or less formula-driven gang fight slugfest, only in the UK gangs are called “firms” and they wear sweaters and hushpuppies. The fight scenes are poorly edited and shot, so star Scott Adkins’ skills are not on display as they should be.
FISTS OF LEGEND
Not to be confused with the Jet Li vehicle FIST OF LEGEND, this Korean martial arts drama steers clear of the usual Rocky variation to posit a story of middle-aged desk jockeys trying their hand at the competitive fight game. The narrative often flashes back to high school, when so many men place a high value on their fighting prowess, and subsequently live in their own shadow, and this device manages to be both poignant and exciting.
More or less an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, so it’s unable to sustain the mystery of the premise for its running time. The initial build up is great but the last act doesn’t hold up.
THIS IS SPINAL TAP
You’d think a metalhead like me would’ve caught this one before now, but… Some of the best comedians of the era take on the roles of deluded and drug-addled rock stars. Plenty of clever improv, but its humor is swiftly becoming dated. So…catch it now!
If you’ve never seen this moody, sometimes artsy sci-fi horror you’re missing one of the most horrific and disturbingly beautiful entries from the 80s post-apocalypse roundup. Scarier than ALIEN, odder than THE THING, it’s definitely worth a watch.
SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS
Not to be confused with Jet Li’s MARTIAL ARTS OF SHAOLIN, this Hong Kong fist-fest from legendary director Chang Cheh stars Fu Sheng and Kuan Chun Chi and some amazingly intricate choreography — along with occasional shocking brutality. The plot is strictly assembly line; fighters from a defeated clan travel to train under masters of a specific style that will overcome the strengths of their enemies, sort of like paper-rock-scissors, but there are surprises to be found.
Back in 1958 this was probably a controversial film, despite clearly being a message of warning to any young ladies giving consideration to such acts of depravity as wearing slacks to school, sassing off to their parents, or breaking into the old abandoned movie house for gossip sessions. Sure, you can watch it and have a laugh at the naivete’ — but you might also find yourself wishing YOU lived is such a time…
BILL BURR: YOU PEOPLE ARE ALL THE SAME
You’ll recognize Burr from his stint on Breaking Bad, and if you’re like me you’ll find his comedic observations and delivery sincere and pitch perfect.
Ryan Phillipe plays a sheltered but not necessarily spoiled actor who is kidnapped and taken into the swamps by a pair of Cajuns looking for revenge. Nothing overly complicated here, but if you think Phillipe is just an overrated pretty boy with no range you’ll be surprised.
THE TOXIC AVENGER PART 3
Everything that made the first two entries feel like fresh frenetic trashy fun now feels forced and dated. Positively chatty compared to its action filled forebears, and not even that funny.
Takashi Shimizu of the GRUDGE films has never quite fulfilled the promise of that franchise but his work is always trippy, creepy and fascinating. This one, loosely connected to his previous film SHOCK CORRIDOR, takes its time, isn’t very bloody, and aims to be more cerebral than is the trend, so settle in.
Cung Le, a former MMA and San Shou champion, stars in this low budget actioner with Peter Weller and Jean Claude Van Damme, as an ex-con vigilante sent by his prison mentor (Van Damme) to oust (kill) the crime faction that has infested it. Weller chews scenery of course, but it’s the fights that we want, and while Le’s skill set is far better suited to actual fights, as opposed to movie fights, he’s a powerful and personable presence and this is a good early vehicle for him.
They couldn’t haven’t been more different — but the two icons who passed away last week both had an immeasurable impact on yours truly, and surely on others of my generation.
Christopher Lee was a distant relative of Charles The Great, whose life he would chronicle in a symphonic power metal album called Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross. Texas-born Virgil “Dusty Rhodes” Runnels was the son of a plumber.
Lee became in a sense, Hammer Films’ answer to Boris Karloff when the upstart London-based production company re-visited the classic monsters originally brought to cinemas by Universal. Hammer’s monster cycle began in the fifties, peaked in the 60s and finally tapered off in the 70s. During this span, Lee turned in unforgettable performances as Frankenstein’s monster, The Mummy,Rasputin, Sherlock Holmes, and most famously Count Dracula. It was in this role that I discovered Sir Lee (he received knighthood in 2009) one fateful sunday afternoon.
As a young fellow, I had made it a mission to see all the Universal monster films. Bela Lugosi, and occasionally John Carradine, were Dracula to me, with their menacing cape-waving, underlit overacting.
But Christopher Lee was the next gen model, you see. He lunged onto the screen with blood-filled eyes, hissing past jaguar fangs and chasing Peter Cushing about a cathedral-esque castle, vicious and defiant to the end as Cushing’s Van Helsing improvised a cross out of candleholders and swashbuckled the shit out of the heavy drapes that were the only barrier between the malignant Count and fast forward decay.