Wer

WER-Banner

For a long time I’ve been in a Kirk/Picard situation with myself, regarding Ginger Snaps and The Howling: which do I like best? And, I know, what about An American Werewolf in London, Dog Soldiers, Bad Moon. They’re all good and vital, and contributed important stuff, but for me, it’s always come down to Ginger Snaps or The Howling. And I usually settle on The Howling, as it’s got a much stronger ending (much longer franchise tail as well).

But now, man. No, not ‘man.’ Wer.

wolfman-hand-transformation-fingersThis may be the werewolf movie we’ve all been waiting on. And, what’s odd about it? Ever since 1941, the transformation sequence has been key. Landis and Baker took that and drove it home better than anybody, and Hemlock Grove‘s still doing it, to excellent effect. But in Wer, there’s only two real transformations, and neither of them required any dayslong choreography of latex and air-bladders, and the cgi rendering didn’t take a whole wall of processing power. Wer, it’s kind of standing the movie werewolf on its head. As the title might suggest, its stripping all the extra off ‘werewolf,’ just giving us the real monster inside that word all along.*

As for why the transformation sequence is so slight—not at all dissatisfying, just not the set-piece it’s always been—it’s not budget, necessarily, it’s that we don’t need to visually chart the ‘shift’ from man to wolf this time. From man to amalgamation of man and wolf, as if a wolf has been laid over the chassis of a man. As if the ‘dangerous’ or best parts of each have come together in some chocolate and peanut-butter perfect storm of an ultimate predator.

Too, I should mention, that’s exactly what I like from my werewolves: not the shoulderpad wolves of Dog Soldiers nor the cat-wolves of Underworld (don’t get me wrong, Lucien’s my sun-and-stars), but something more approaching Streiber’s canis lupus sapiens. Really, this is the silhouette I think a werewolf should cut:

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Which is more or less Professor Lupin’s final form, yes? His intermediary one, anyway. Stretched out thin like a greyhound, hair-as-accessory rather than main characteristic, an actual canine muzzle, and on all fours except when the need arises to prairie-dog up over the cubicle walls. A wolf that can persistence hunt, I mean, not just ambush.

And this isn’t to say Wer‘s werewolf isn’t as excellent as excellent gets. When it runs, it drops to all fours, and could probably hurdle a cheetah when that cheetah was really cooking.

Before we get to that werewolf, though, remember how The Wolfman remake does that authentication shuffle—it does it twice, really: on the train (in the dir. cut, I think), Max Van Sydow, in handing off the silver-headed wolf cane we all know and love, drops “Gevaudan,” thereby tipping his hat to all the werewolf aficionados in the crowd that, yes, this movie’s had its homework done, the Beast of Gevaudan is something that matters. But the other way The Wolfman authenticates itself, it’s by having this Lawrence Talbot diagnosed with clinical lycanthropy, which is what always ‘explains away’ the werewolf, as all us die-hards in the crowd know, and kind of despise (this is where The Werewolf of Paris ended once upon a time, yes?). But The Wolfman then earns our undying loyalty when it very publicly disproves that diagnosis, to the consternation and bloody-necked deaths of a lot of gentlemen of the day.

Wer is doing something very similar, here. Except this time we’re the crowd of onlookers, diagnosing this tall, hairy dude with, probably, surely, an advanced case of clinical lycanthropy. We all know he’s the killer, but we suspect he’s just a killer dude, like Peter Stumpf (Stubb, Stump, etc) way back when: somebody who quit shaving and started eating people, starting at the neck.

Then, just like those Victorian gentlemen in The Wolfman‘s 1891, we get disabused of that notion. Pretty wonderfully, too. When this werewolf gets wound up and bitey, it doesn’t matter who’s in the room or what they’re packing, he’s going to chew right through them.

howling3_shot3lEspecially cool? The nod to Howling III. That’s the marsupial one, yes. Where they use flashing lights to trigger a transformation. The doctors in Wer should have been passing that VHS around before stepping down into this medical theater.

Anyway, Ginger Snaps: what made it work was largely that it was a werewolf story embedded within a high school story. The werewolf story  undergirded and exaggerated the issues the Fitzgerald sisters were already facing. Wer‘s got a similar angle: this is a werewolf story operating behind the scrim of a legal thriller, a courtroom drama that’s just ramping up to some “You can’t handle the truth”-apotheosis.

Except, of course, things go wrong. If things didn’t go wrong like this in stories, really, we’d stop telling stories. Stop listening to them, anyway.

So, the first half of the film is like footsteps, slowly approaching the werewolf door, peeking up to look in through the small window. Then we get some cool kill scenes, a transformation, and that door’s all the way broken down. The chase is officially started. Across the countryside, in barns, in caves, in caravans, in marshes, the werewolf doesn’t care. All the werewolf wants to do, it’s kill and—this is important—feed.

Far too often our movie werewolves, they just bite and run, right? Like, they hate the world, or throats and shoulders, anyway, and are going to do as much damage as they can before getting gunned down in the street.

Scarier, if you ask me, are those werewolves that are actually preying on us. That want the meat off our thighs. Not just because they don’t always kill us before starting in—though that’s not exactly ideal—but because, if the werewolf’s feeding then that makes it an actual biological animal, instead of some supernatural ‘cursed’ temporary creation. And animals are much easier to believe in, thus, much scarier. Killing one will hardly even matter, right? There’s a breeding population out there somewhere.

url-2And, talking ‘preying.’ Anybody remember that UPN series Prey from the late nineties? More than anything, Wer reminds me of that: an embedded species, with capabilities far exceeding our own. What’s cool about Wer is that the (extreme) license it takes with porphyria is used to pretty much ‘explain’ werewolves through the ages. And it makes complete and rational sense. And it even takes into account the moon, as all werewolves stories have to address sooner or later (however, silver isn’t an issue. you think it’s going to be, but then it’s not).

What’s really, really satisfying about Wer, though, it’s how it manages to both have closure at the end, but in a way that nearly sketches out the rough space where the sequel should be. Very impressed with the writing. And with the directing. And the photography. And the acting. And the effects. And this werewolf. Man, this is bad. Closest analogue I can think of is that tall bearded dude from Cold Prey. Except this werewolf would kill him in a heartbeat.

What’s really, really dissatisfying about Wer? That it didn’t get the wide-release. But it’s coming to DVD in September, I think it is. And it’s so buyable right now, digitally. Get there, werewolf fans. It’s the first new thing we’ve seen in these fields since about 2000. Wer is bringing the werewolf into our world. And it’s a bloody, loud birth. As it should be. My only prayer is that this movie has siblings, and children. We already know the grandparents. What we’re ready for, it’s the next litter.

 


* however, if we follow through with this, “Godzilla” becomes “God,” “mummies” end up being just “mum,” etc.

** (this footnote has no launch-point above) also, the Jim Harrison of “The Games of Night”—not Wolf—would dig this movie, I think. Can somebody tell him? He’s not in my rolodex.

Society Isn’t Doomed

mix Buzzfeed‘s “23 Things that Prove Society is Doomed” with Salon‘s “War & Peace on the Subway: How Your iPhone is Saving Literature,” then angle it through my publicists’ rose-colored glasses, and you end up with something a lot  like:

1. Sitting together and reading still counts as socializing:

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↳ Via quoteinvestigator.com, once upon a time.

2. It’s considered polite not to read over your date’s shoulder:

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↳ Used to be via empoweredteensandparents.com.

3. Fill the steps between class and the bus stop with a book:

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↳ I wonder if these kids know they’re in the original of this image from betabeat.com?

4. Books, for all the many time-outs and half-times of the sporting events you attend:

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↳ Somebody here forgot their book . . . (Originally via umhoops.com).

 5. “There’s such a glare in here, we’re all having to hold our phones at odd angles to see the pages of these books”:

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↳ Used to be from picsofaznstakingpicsoffood.tumblr.com, but the internet broke because the URL was too long.

10. Sometimes chivalry is a race. She’s trying to gift him the book before he can buy it himself:

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↳ Originally via 98kool.com, which has to be either a radio station or a cigarette.

11. Sure, Thomas Cole is good, but if you want zombies, you’re going to have crack a book open:

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 12. When you don’t know what to say, maybe a book can help:

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↳ Used to be via saketvora.com. And no, I’m not getting paid for the product placement. Though I am now thirsty.

16. They’re reading so fast it’s making their faces blur:

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↳ Originally via singaporeseen.stomp.com.sg. Unless Samara’s holding that camera . . .

18. He’s putting a bookmark in his audio novel:

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↳ Via businessinsider.com once upon a time. A site I’ve never, never been to.

19. It’s not considered ‘time-out’ if you’ve got a book. With a book, you can still escape to anywhere:

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↳ Original via runt-of-the-web.com.

 

 

 stephen graham jones

Godzilla: What if Smaug Were on OUR Side?

click for the song we all know

Wasn’t a clutch of eggs important last time around as well, for Godzilla? It’s cool. I mean, it shows Jurassic Park influence—’nature always finds a way’—but more than that, it suggests that in order for us to keep these science-fiction monsters believable, we’re having to apply biology to them. We’re giving them life cycles outside their brief, usually-tragic rampages. In the case of this Godzilla, though, it actually feels a little bit more like a course correction, of sorts. From Pacific Rim, I mean, whose kaiju had of course already starred in Cloverfield, The Mist, and on and back. But, as far as giant monsters go, we can’t get enough, really. What Pacific Rim did was just elide that fascination with the then- (and soon to be again) fad of giant robots — Transformers, Battleship.godzilla 3

What this Godzilla is correcting, though, it’s locating the giant monsters here on Earth, instead of via an interdimensional portal to some place Thor should have cleaned up long ago. This is important because in Pacific Rim, the threat of aliens makes that an invasion story, one Adrien Veidt would have loved, as it catalyzes humanity into a single unit, erases the differences we bicker about, reminds us we’re in this together, gives us a common cause. I’m not saying this Godzilla doesn’t have that Independence Day blockbustery dynamic built in as well, but, whereas ‘aliens,’ at least to this Blackfeet, are always a big fancy metaphor for colonization (I don’t see any other way to watch Cowboys and Aliens), radiation monsters, they’re more a critique of unchecked scientific progress, an indicator of our guilt (and subsequent punishmnet) for splitting the atom and using it as a weapon, letting the waste leak everywhere, making the fish in Homer’s river have three eyes. Granted, the backstory for these “M.U.T.U.”s (‘Massive Unknown Terrestrial’-somethings, I think) draws them as much more ancient, but still: they’re rising again now, in what we call the nuclear age, and that’s not supposed to suggest anything?

What’s also cool with Godzilla — with all of them, I think, though I’m no historian of giant monsters — is how handily it plays on the prejudices we humans are of course going to subscribe to: giant, destructive bi-peds with eyes we recognize as eyes of course occupy the moral highground over giant, destructive spiders (and other, unnamed insects . . .). Granted, playing into those codes, into that familiarity, it make Godzilla a little too much of a, as the news suggests, ‘savoir of the city,’ a giant Rocky arising when needed, to put down this Clubber Lang, this Drago, this Thunderlips, but at this point in the story — I have no idea how many appearances Godzilla’s made on the big screen — you’ve got to ask yourself what’s left, right? Better effects, sure, but buildings falling down more realistically doesn’t a story make. And, since about Reign of Fire, I’d say, Hollywood’s been able to render dragons fairly realistically (even if they don’t all talk with Sean Connery’s voice).

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So: what does this Godzilla bring to the table that hasn’t been there before, right?

Well, unlike Pacific Rim, women are back to being damsels, more or less, for worse instead of better. And, taking a cue from I’m-not-sure-where, little kids are used here to anchor and polarize so many scenes. Kids that are never used in the story again, but that, for this scene or sequence, are supposed to up the stakes, I think, and give our hero more chance for, you know, heroism. It’s odd; it almost feels like there was a producer watching the rough cuts, and saying, You know, that was all right, sure . . . But what if we added a little kid to that scene? I’m talking an especially powerful, charismatic producer, who’s suggestions are marching orders, who wears gold-plated diapers.

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click for some Physics Today science, via i09

One thing I really appreciated with Godzilla this time around, though, it was how much story was visually packed behind the opening credits. It handily rewriting what we all know as history. Seriously, give an audience a quiz after those first three or four minutes, and nine out of ten of them will demonstrate that they’ve been positioned exactly as the story wants them to be. It’s some excellent exposition-handling, on the order of that opening sequence in Up, or District 9. Except not as obtrusive as either of those. I could have watched this Godzilla‘s opening credits for the whole feature, I think.

. . . except for the fact that every single Godzilla movie, it’s a waiting game: when do we get to see the big guy? When when when? Like Shyamalan in The Sixth Sense, though, this Godzilla knows that the longer we wait for ‘proof,’ the better it’ll be. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some (updated) big bad monsters stomping around on-screen, of course. As it turns out, some version of the Dharma Initiative has been shepharding them for a few decades, now, and right below Fox Mulder’s nose (though our crazy-like-a-fox character here, Brian Cranston, he’s of course hot on the — to him — very personal trail). And of course this all goes south pretty predictably. And that’s not a bad thing, either: if it doesn’t go south, the movie doesn’t happen, right?

it’s not him, either

I do worry a bit about this world, though. Remember for so long how all the zombie movies had to have this ‘learning curve,’ wherein all the characters had to ‘figure out’ that these walking dead are infectious, killable by headshots, all that? Those movies, they were happening in a world not our own: when we see a dead dude slobbering around, we yell “Zombie!” and get into double-tap mode. Which is to say, zombie movies, zombie stories, they exist in our world, and for a long time, in movies, they never did. It’s kind of the same here. I mean, I can go along with the conceit that the Godzilla franchise never got kickstarted, sure. And maybe we never even got hooked on King Kong fighting giant snakes and the occasional pterodactyl. But, look at the action figures the kids have: are those tyrannosaurs, or are they something more movie-inspired?

I’m being too picky, I know, but, going by headsize (small), they’re Godzilla. Which is a fun in-joke, of course. Except it completely fries the world of the movie, for me. Or, it’s like, talking X-Files again: you know how frustrated you always get, that that Very Important Disc Mulder’s finally got his hands on, it turns to smoke? That sucks, yes, but it resets that world for the next episode, too. And that’s so important. If Fox’s CD ever actually made it to the media, then suddenly the X-Files would be happening in a world divorced from ours, a world in which aliens are proven. It’s kind of the same here, for me: this Godzilla — unlike Jurassic Park, which used the unassailable science of amber — it exists in a world divorced from this made-up-monster-dependent world I live in. So it’s happening on-screen, instead of, maybe, in the parking lot outside the theater. Which is kind of a bummer, I suppose. But also pretty great, as I don’t want to get stepped on, or barbecued with what looks like a butane flame.

However, there’s a much more interesting question to ask of this Godzilla: how did we get here? One way to look at it is a series of one-upsmanships, everybody trying to create a cooler giant monster. And that makes good sense, and is especially compelling as we’re the beneficiaries of that kind of game (well, I suppose the studios have a dog in that race as well).

I look at it different, though.

Remember the world Cabin in the Woods was trying to keep in balance? Remember how those bureaucratic slashers, their main job, it was to supply dream fuel for the slumbering giants of yore? How, if those sacrifices ever stopped, well, then those “Ancient Ones,” they would rise again, and, much like Nix, ‘murder the world.’

I’ve got another title for this Godzilla: Cabin in the Woods 2 — The Elder Gods Are Awake.

Run.

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Cold in July

CIJ_STILL-399The trick in adapting a novel—or anything—for the screen, it’s not about being loyal to every line or faithful to each scene exactly as it happens on the page, it’s about identifying the beating heart of the novel, and then finding a way to get it on screen such that the final effect can feel the same. Jim Mickle’s Cold in July does exactly that with Joe R. Lansdale’s novel Cold in July, a book readers have been celebrating now for twenty-five years. After this movie, though, I imagine there’s going to be a whole new set of readers coming to this book, and then falling into the rest of the Lansdale shelves. And that’s plural on purpose, there. I envy them their fall, too.

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I so dig how the crosses on this cover look like cowboy hats

And, what’s surprising with this adaptation, it’s that, while it didn’t have to be faithful the novel, still, just about everything that happens on-screen, it’s lifted from the page. Sure, there’s some things condensed, some characters erased, but that’s just because the conventions of film and the conventions of fiction are different. That beating heart, though—let me get at it sideways, so as not to directly spoil: you know how the real pleasure of zombies, in both videogames and movies, it’s that they’re complete monsters, you can’t negotiate with them, there’s one and only one rational response to them looming over you? Shooting a zombie feels so righteous.

That’s exactly what Cold in July is about. It’s about putting a normal, small-town guy in a situation where he questions his own response to protect his family, and then sending him on an adventure where he’s shown that his response to protect, it’s not only right and reasonable, it’s a duty. Any ethical hesitation is erased. We’re even cheering his response, and wishing we were him the same way we wished we were William Wallace in Braveheart.

Where Cold in July really accelerates past the Bravehearts, though—and the movie does preserve this as it was in the novel—it’s by texturing this whole dilemma with fatherhood. No, not texturing: tying it in directly, and showing fathers and sons from different angles, yet never resorting to homily or sentiment. This story doesn’t take the easy way out even once. As Lansdale himself says right before his most well-known story starts, this is a story that doesn’t flinch.

And, for all the longtime Mojo readers, there’s even nods to some of Lansdale’s other works. But I’ll let you see them yourself.

What was really telling about the movie for me, though, it’s that my wife and I sat all through the credits talking about it, and about 1989, which was rendered pretty spot-on, even down to the excellent final song (hint: White Lion). At one point my wife said, about the pacing, that “it was so Joe.” And she’s so right. Lansdale’s got some of the best instincts around for the rhythm of storytelling, and where to inject humor, when to cut some gore you’d really rather not have to see. And, with a cast like this—Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson—of course all the acting’s more than spot-on. But the camera work and the set design, that’s what really sells this one for me. The composition of each shot is so intentional if you really watch, but it never gets in the way, either. It makes you appreciate film, I guess I’m saying. Yet never at the expense of the story. All adaptations should have such a steady hand.

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click for trailer

And, not really talking location, but tone: Texas. In his introduction for Preacher, Lansdale notes (rightly) that, while Ennis tells a good and crazy story set in Texas, still, this ain’t Texas, not by a long shot. Cold in July, though, it’s Texas through and through. I’m not saying it was shot in Texas—I think I knew at one point, but have forgot—I’m saying that it feels like Texas. The same way A Perfect World did, or Sugarland Express. That’s partly due to the story, of course, and the characters, and their rambling outside the lines of the law—Texas stories generally put justice in the hands of the individual, not the courts, and that’s a big part of why we like them, I suspect (that’s a great fantasy to buy into for a few hours; it’s every western, from Zane Grey to Louis L’Amour)—but there’s something else, something hard to pin down. Whatever it is, Mickle gets it right. It’s not Don Johnson’s cool shirts, though I think I’ve got matches to most of them in my closet, and it’s not his red Cadillac, but I guess it kind of might be the mariachi in the restaurant, say. Or plinking bottles in the back yard. Or feeding leftovers through the hogwire. And it’s the way our hero and his wife sit on a couch together. It makes me miss home. But, luckily, there’s novels and movies like Cold in July, that can take me back for a little bit.

If you’re close enough to catch Cold in July on the big screen, then of course do that. If not, though, then it’s streaming. And—maybe this was just for us—right when it started raining in the movie, the skies opened up above Boulder, too, so that the sounds mixed and we couldn’t tell one from the other. I can’t guarantee it’ll rain on you if you cue this up, I don’t guess. But I can guarantee you’ll be lost in a good story.

 

Stage Fright

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I can’t figure why exactly slashers and musicals are something that’s been tried now twice. Once here, and once in Don’t Go In the Woods. I mean, Nazis and zombies, that just makes sense. But I can’t figure out what slashers and musicals share, exactly. And, maybe it’s not slashers in particular, even. We’ve already had Cannibal: the Musical, haven’t we? Maybe horror is just something we like to see strained through the musical. If it is something particular to the slasher, though . . . what, right? Is it that they’re both pretty formulaic? Like, gleefully formulaic? Could be. Or—this is sounding more likely to me—I bet it’s the fact that each rely so heavily on set-pieces. Musicals have sing-alongs every X minutes, and a slasher’s guaranteed to deliver an over-the-top kill every X minutes. Which is different than ‘formula,’ of course. Formula is kind of like ‘recipe’: put these characters in that situation, and the same thing’ll cook up each time. And that’s not at all bad, either. A lot of people indict slashers for this very reason, whereas I see that as their strength, maybe even their saving grace. But, yes, I think that’s it: a slasher and a musical, no matter what else is going on, we’re getting a specific kind of scene ever few minutes. Their rhythm is the same. And they’re each exuberant, and unselfconscious. They’re not ashamed to let a person sing their inner thoughts, they see nothing wrong with going into unnecessarily graphic detail about how exactly the knife enters the eye-socket.

They’re chocolate and peanut butter.

sf0And, yes, Don’t Go In the Woods (2010) is kind of reviled (and not to be confused with 1981′s Don’t Go In the Woods, though that does rely on a particular song as well . . .). What about this Stage Fright, though? First, though, don’t confuse it with Curtains, or with Argento’s Opera, or with Flesh & Blood, or with Scream 2, though of course they all share that Black Swan/theatre set-up. And, as for why theatre and slashers so often have gone hand in hand: the masks, yes? The, you know, the theater of it all, the grand ‘production’ this slasher is going through, in order for everybody to cue into his or her important backstory. Even Deathtrap had a lot of bloody fun on- and off-stage.

And—okay, for this slasher, it’s being paired with A) the musical, and B) the actual theatre. What else? Well, what’s the slasher’s natural stomping grounds, right? Camp, of the Sleepaway kind, of the Crystal Lake kind.

A bunch of theatre kids are isolated from parents and authority and pitted against each other in order to stage a perfect, save-the-camp play. Only, some masked killer’s killing people, for very giallo reasons, it would seem.

Also, I should say, before I deliver any kind of verdict here, that I’m the only person I’ve found so far who, the first time I watched Rock of Ages, went back to the main menu, and hit play again, and then, after that, inhaled every single extra/special feature, and listened to all the commentaries, and did everything I could to please let that movie live forever in my head and my heart. Granted, it’s way strange hearing my hair band gods’ songs coming from people who don’t seem to fit those voices, or that delivery, and, yes, not all of the songs would have actually been sung aloud, did people actually sing aloud like that. But still: the musical. I love the way they work. I loved the way Rock of Ages worked.

I should also say that Meat Loaf, as near as I’m concerned, is the best performer of his own music there’s been. The dude’s opera in-person; his every move is towards the over-dramatic, to be sure the people way back in back can get every nuance. I’ve got all his music videos pretty much memorized, and his Bat Out of Hell series, I’ve bought that so many times. They’re the albums I’ve listened to the most in my life, by far.

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the inevitable lovechild of Michael and Jigsaw

So, yes, Stage Fright, it’s pretty much made for me. It’s got Meat Loaf in some superfake mustaches, it’s got Minnie Driver in the Drew Berrymore role, dying in a beautifully grisly way, and it’s got that Cheerleader Camp logic, of: So, somebody died. Let’s wait until Monday to worry about that, what do y’all think?

And that’s just the tip of the machete.

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It’s also got Argento’s sensibility when it comes to kill scenes: lay hard on the guitar when the knife’s going in, it’ll make everything so much cooler. And, just when you think it can’t get any cooler? Well, what if the slasher, say, pulled out his own guitar, stepped into his power stance over his latest victim, and laid down a face-melting solo?

But perhaps the coolest part of it all for me, it’s after Meat Loaf’s first musical number—and this is after the movie’s already established for us that it’s in a mode where people can spontaneously fall into song, and that’s not weird at all. But, after Meat Loaf’s kind of introductory song, the coolest thing happens: everybody starts to clap for his performance. Which is to say this wasn’t him ‘singing his heart,’ this was him singing within the musical. It’s a trick I’ve never seen done. And Stage Fright, it’s chock full of fun like that. There’s Pinhead gags, there’s obligatory Carrie gags, there’s somebody saying “pieces” in a way that has to be a reference to the 1982 movie of the same name, there’s post-kill one-liners that would make Arnold blush, there’s the early-on promise of the big massacre at the end (and even a countdown to it), there’s a third-reel body dump nearly as good as any of Jason’s spring-loaded corpses, there’s some high-quality kills with a variety of instruments—and, I lied: my favorite little trick? It’s when a certain person pulls the phone cord from its junction on the outside of a cabin. Which is just what you do in a slasher. But what you usually don’t get with that, it’s the faint sound, then, of a busy signal. Which is of course what anybody who calls is going to hear. It’s not the sound that ripped-out cable’s going to make. That cable’s not making any sound at all.

But we’re in slasher-land, here. We’re in a place where the sound leaks from the cables like blood, and seeps into our ears, and we hardly even notice.

Stage Fright is hiliarious and gory. And that’s exactly what you want in a slasher, I think. It’s exactly what I want, anyway. And, not to overspoil—stop here if you’re worried—but it’s got a closing gag that’s so well-timed it actually made me flinch. And it only works because the structural cues Stage Fright‘s got going on, they lull me one way. But surprise. In the slasher, there’s a jack-in-the-box around every corner. And it’s usually holding a knife. If you’re lucky, it’s holding two.

[ that whole commencement speech: here ]

 

Werewolf Class

art by Gary Pacheco

My second or third year teaching, somebody caught me in a hallway, asked me my thoughts on how detective fiction’s put together. And, listening to myself answer—of course I’d been reading noir and p.i. and crime and thriller forever—I realized that I only knew detective fiction as a reader, not a writer. And, I say ‘only,’ but not to diminish. Rather, to highlight that how I, anyway, learn about a thing, it’s by doing it. So, dissatisfied with my answer in the hall that day, I sat down a couple weeks later, started writing the novel that became Not for Nothing. The way I learn about stuff, I mean, it’s to vivisect, sure. But it’s to vivesect with full knowledge that I’m just hollowing out that skin so I can try it on.

And, man, I’ve been into werewolves so much longer than I’ve been into . . . I don’t know: detective fiction, sure. But also hamburgers, say. Yet, yes, I’ve been teaching a zombie course for a few years now. And it’s been a ball, and I’ll do it again, of course. The zombie’s far from dead. But now I’ve got a chance to bring things back to the heart, as it were: werewolves for a summer course. Four weeks of tooth and claw, paint-the-walls-red because they’re going to be anyway.

As prep, last fall I started what I thought was going to be my monsterwork best-thing-ever werewolf novel, The Lord’s Highway. Kind of a start-over of a werewolf novel I wrote in 2000, Bloodlines, that turned out to be not good enough to even re-read. But I liked the setting (Alpine, Texas), and the character set (feels based on PKD’s The Galactic Pot Healer, to me). So I figured I know more now, I can do it right this time. Wrong. I wrote a couple hundred pages, only a hundred and twenty of which actually contribute, but every move I made in that story would tack a cool fifty pages onto its total length. I mean, already it was trying to reach for five hundred pages. And, I’m not necessarily scared of a book that long—All the Beautiful Sinners and Demon Theory both nearly ring that halfway to The Stand bell—but I am scared that my first time to try to go long with a novel like that, it might just be a dry-run, a test, a forging into new territory to see if it’ll support me. And I care too much about werewolves to burn them on that. So, I dove out of that novel about Thanksgiving, and, in December, as prep for this class, I read so, so many werewolf stories, and burned through all the old werewolf books and comic books, and watched a lot of the werewolf movies and tv, and pretty much just engaged the lore at a more intentional level than I had before. And it was thrilling. So thrilling, in fact, that, staring 1 January 2014, I started a new werewolf novel, Mongrels, which I finished a couple of weeks later. It’s unlike any other book I’ve written; closest analogue: Ledfeather. And Mongrels, it’s not even horror, though there’s plenty of teeth-in-skin action.

wolf headAnyway, not at all as a final repository, more of a look-ahead, here’s the texts I’ve had the bookstore order—with Anne Rice replacing Robert McCammon, as Wolf’s Hour‘s apparently out-of-print (the two books pretty much do the same thing, though to wildly different levels of success):

  • The Howling, Gary Brandner
  • Kitty and the Midnight Hour, Carrie Vaughn
  • Liar, Justine Larbaliester
  • The Wolf’s Gift, Anne Rice
  • Red Moon, Benjamin Percy
  • Kornwolf, Tristan Egolf
  • The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan

Comic books unfairly skipped: that Fables werewolf arc, the Cap-Wolf trade paperback, BoomStudio’s recent Curse (not sure if it’ll be in tpb by the time class starts), Kirkman’s The Astounding Wolf-Man, McCullough’s Who Needs the Moon, Gallaher and Ellis’s High Moon. Probably more I don’t even know about (anybody? I was kind of going off memory for the comic books).

And, I may try to find some way to get the class reading at least the debut issue or two of Werewolf by Night, as it’s so vital. But I can’t ask them to buy that whole volume 1, either. Not cheap. I might also try to find a way to excerpt Argent’s story from Grendel—I halfway remember it as getting featured in Black, White, and Red, maybe? Or one from that series. We might talk about X-Factor’s Wolfsbane a bit too, I suppose. Though I never knew her very well at all.

Novels left behind, as this is just four weeks: Strieber’s The Wolfen and The Wild, King’s Cycle of the Werewolf, Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, Klaus’s Blood and Chocolate. Williamson’s Darker Than You Think (I plain old just haven’t read this one yet). Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (I tolerate this very poorly, couldn’t teach it fairly). JL Benet’s Wolf Hunter (soon to read this one). And, I wish there was time for Endor’s Werewolf of Paris, as it’s a solid, well-written novel. But, as the focus really seems to be some kind of playful social critique . . . I don’t know: I don’t teach those very well. I’m much better with the morphology of the werewolf tale itself, across time. If I’m good at anything, I mean. Also skipped, though I didn’t mean to skip it, just forgot, so may yet try to sneak it onto the booklist: Sabine Baring-Gould’s old and excellent The Book of Werewolves. However, you can sum up the first two-thirds of that book with just a single story, I think.

We might mention Freud’s Wolf-Man stuff, too, but only in passing (it’s also a graphic novel).

And, yeah, as there’s just four weeks, we’re sadly skipping Skipp’s mondo-antho, Werewolves and Shape Shifters. And Pronzini’s old Werewolf is long out-of-print (though I’ll forever love it—it gives us one of my most favorite werewolf stories ever, James Blish’s “There Shall be No Darkness,” which The Beast Must Die is somewhat based on—not a bad movie, all-told). And there’s some other solid anthologies as well, of course, all of which I’ve got, all of which I’d feel evil assigning, then just selecting from (instead of devouring cover-to-cover, as should be done).

And, yeah, of course we’ll hit GRRM’s “The Skin Trade.” Probably in audio-form? Not sure yet. And I may find some way to get Jeff Burk’s “Cripplewolf” in, and David Barbee’s “The Night’s Neon Fangs.”

And there’ll be a surprise werewolf story as well, which I can’t give away yet, but the dude who wrote it, his name rhymes with Hoe Jill.

wolf red (blaz porenta)

And, of course, we’ll be doing some essential viewing:

  • The Wolf Man (1941)
  • An American Werewolf in London (1981)
  • Ginger Snaps (2000)
  • Dog Soldiers (2002)
  • Wolf (1994)
  • Silver Bullet (1985)
  • Underworld (2003)

Hardly a comprehensive list, I know (there something absolutely vital that I’m missing?), but, I mean, it’s an English course, not a Film Studies course. And we’ll be watching werewolf short films daily, too. So much cool stuff out there.

Werewolf-in-LondonAs for television, man, there’s a world of werewolf TV. We’ll at least talk about:

  • Werewolf (the eighties)
  • Teen-Wolf (Mtv)
  • True Blood
  • Bitten
  • Hemlock Grove
  • Wolf Lake

And we may even watch (on Netflix) Supernatural‘s werewolf episode (2.17), as it’s pretty solid. Maybe X-Files‘s as well (1.18), so we can pick at and on this whole “Indians are werewolves”-thing. And, Bitten‘s on Netflix as well, and I think Teen Wolf is too, and Werewolf‘s on YouTube. True Blood really didn’t wolf out for a while—though I bet I can clip some of their pack-dynamic unfun—and that transformation from Hemlock Grove is pretty vital. And, there’s an old CHiPS episode with the Indian-is-a-wolf thing, but I can’t find it, alas. Anybody remember? Probably best forgotten, really. And, I guess that one mutant-y kind of Sherlock could be considered werewolfy; any excuse to watch any of those eps is a good excuse. And there’s a pretty solid Ben 10 werewolf ep as well. And a lot of Scooby-Doos, I’m sure.

Anyway, what I wish-wish-wish was that werewolves had their Near Dark already, so I could teach it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, that’s kind of exactly what I’m trying to provide with that Mongrels novel, but, even were it out yet, I couldn’t teach my own stuff, of course. Didn’t Dante reserve a special circle of Hell for writers who do that?

As for what the focus of the course will be: the different types of werewolf story. I can identify three or four already. And then there’s all the werewolf tropes to get into. And the different types of werewolves as well (wolf-men [of which there's shoulder-pad wolves, Prof Lupin 'lithe' wolves, etc], wolf-wolfs [size varies], ‘smart’ wolves, hero wolves, etc). And of course the history of the werewolf. And, the big question: why are they still around? what’s so cool about them?

So, posting all this because, a few months ago I said something about this course and some people asked me to post like this when the course was starting to come together. Which: it is, now. Course starts in early July, runs on all four feet until early August. Already got a chock-full class with a long old waiting list, too. It’s going to be fun. Teaching zombie class, I learned so much about the zombie. I plan to know so much more about the werewolf by Fall. Teaching’s not really about teaching, it’s about learning.

wolf (tribal)_by_hedeltrez-d4iwzhx

 

Only Lovers Left Alive

loversOkay, I need to be writing chapters of a novel, but, to keep my brain from melting, I slip out from time to time for a movie. And I got zero time or fingerstrength for rigging a proper review together, but, man, I did dig this one. Also, the world may be lucky that Jim Jarmusch chose to drop this movie now, instead of twenty years ago, when Sandman was in full swing. I mean, Gaiman, he gothed the world up, and there’s still remants and vestiges of that, which is all cool and great. But, had Only Lovers Left Alive hit in the mid-nineties, well, it would have been all over for good old Planet Earth. An alternate  universe Captain Kirk would have fallen into orbit one day, transported down, and there would be raggy black cloth everywhere, and eyeliner would be heriditery by then, and all the babies would be named Robert Smith.

Which is to say: both the style and the tone of this movie, it sucks you in completely, it makes you want to be these cool, mopey cats. I mean, sure, there’s a sense in which they’re kind of functioning as immortal commentators on the ills of humanity—nicely dubbed ‘zombies’—and, yes, since Ann Rice, vampires have pretty much been a class-fascination for the rest of us (we want to join that club . . .), but, who wouldn’t choose to live in a dilapidated, velvety Victorian mansion in abandoned Detroit and collect impossibly vintage guitars and then have the added luxury of denying all the fame your haunted-up music tries to bring you? Seems like a good enough gig to me. And you don’t have to wear shirts, or brush your hair, and there’s sunglasses and gloves involved, and a Jaguar, and steampunky kind of engines, and you can Skype through televisions that still have vacuum tubes.

What this vampire movie puts me in mind of, I guess, it’s Midnight Son. Anybody see that? It’s got a similar pace. Can’t recall if I saw it on a screening committee or a film festival, either. And the only reason I even say that? Because, by the terms of Only Lovers Left Alive, you’re automatically cooler if your movie point-of-reference is super indie. Case in point: after a vocal performance that’s as perfect a piece of music video as David Lynch ever did, our main vampires says he hopes the singer never gets famous, as she’s too talented. And he says it so cool that you don’t even pay attention to how staged it is, really. You just think, yes, Lestat could have been this, if he’d just not been such a maniac. And then you’re bitten, you’re infected, you’re displaying those same characteristics—proving your coolness by citing remote movies. Sorry.

Anyway, it’s a cool movie, definitely worth seeing. It’s no Near Dark, no, and it’s no Blade. But maybe a pullback to the arthouse is good for the vampire. Maybe that’s how ‘sparkly’ gets reset. Though, yes, for a long while these vampires are some version of ‘vegetarian’ . . .

And, of course, it goes without saying that this gets the award for the best title of the decade, yes? Maybe the best since Lord of the Flies and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, even.

The Quiet Ones

( click for the trailer )

( click for the trailer )

1.) There’s about fifty jokes to make with that title. None of which will be made in this list.

2.) Put The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity in a jar, let Carrie (also 1974 . . .) shake it while Samara watches, and you’ve pretty much got The Quiet Ones.

3.) There was me and two other dudes there on opening day for it. Which bums me out: it’s horror, world. Also, though, I said to a class a few years ago, “So you’re all there for the midnight FD3 tonight, aren’t you?” and got just blank stares in return, so, you know: at least I was there.

4) There’s a point in here where they pause the projector, freezing an image on their screen, and this is 1974 and the bulb doesn’t melt the film. But: I was two years old then. Am I missing something?

5) So glad I saw this, because, while watching it, I figured out the title to a book that’s been living in my head for about three months. It was nothing anybody said, just something I said to myself.

6) I really wanted the “quiet ones” in The Quiet Ones to be scary. But alas, even getting the character to say the title out loud for us took a shoehorn.

7) I dig how this takes conventions both from the haunted house and the possession/exorcism genres, and then mixes it with some cult-stuff as well. Keeps you guessing. And I so hope this isn’t due to American Horror Story, which just stuff every horror trope and creature and jumpscare &etc into the breech of some bad-idea gun, closes it eyes, and pulls that trigger. If anything, I’ll say using all this in a single horror story is due to The Conjuring. Though I’m still feeling ripples from The Last Exorcism, as well. That wasn’t necessarily a gamechanger for horror, but it did up the stakes a bit, I think, in that it added layers to the story we all knew.

8) Near the end, we’re playing the found-footage game a bit, and there’s these little fast-forwards/edits in there, which I simply cannot seem to rationalize. I mean, they look cool, just, narratively, they make no sense, as they’re trucking in the idea of an invisible editor of sorts, sculpting all this.

Lake_Mungo_Official_Poster9) Remember how Lake Mungo was super-terrifying for a while, then it got way less scary when it got less ghost-y, and then it suddenly ramped back up into terror at the last possible moment? The Quiet Ones tries for that same shape. Maybe it succeeds? Maybe not? Not sure yet. I mean, I haven’t tried to sleep on it yet. We’ll see.

10) The cautionary part of horror is quite often the thing that we can use defensively, yes? I do, anyway. Like, with Mica and Katie (I spelling them right?) from Paranormal Activity: just quit poking the demon, y’all, maybe it won’t bite back, think? Or with Sinister: dude deserves what he gets, as he did, after all, WATCH THE HAUNTED BOX OF HOME MOVIES THAT APPEARED IN A VERY HAUNTED MANNER IN, OF ALL PLACES, THE ATTIC. And all the kids who go to Crystal Lake, they’re just asking for it. But all these stupid people, they make us feel safer, don’t they? I mean, take Hell House, or House on Haunted Hill: scientific curiosity doesn’t just kill the cat, it kills everybody in the room, too. And, in The Quiet Ones, there’s more than enough scientific curiosity to go around. Suggesting that OUR path to relative safety, it’s to A) consider the possibility that possession and telekineses might express the same B) consider NOT renting the most obviously haunted house in Britain to do a secret experiment in, and C) take Eddie Murphy’s advice, and leave that house as soon as the weird stuff starts happening:

11) 1974, man, them were some groovy times. The clothes are so excellent. The set designers and wardrobe department kill it. And, whoever licensed Slade, and put them on a loop for the whole first act? Thank you. That’s my new best trick: just play Slade in the background. That way everything happening in the foreground is automatically better.

12) Also, talking Paranormal Activity one last time: that ‘demonic’ symbol that becomes important The Quiet Ones (maybe; that wasn’t a spoiler. it might not be important). Isn’t it way similar to the one behind all the pictures and every other scary place in the third PA? That actually serves to up the scare, for me.

13) Sam and Dean could have cleansed this house and exorcised this demon in fifty-two minutes, easy. Which isn’t to say anything bad about The Quiet Ones. Sam and Dean, they’re just a couple of bad dudes.

Sam-and-Dean-Winchester-from-Supernatural-45320035416_xlarge

The Woman Who Fell to Earth

uts4 Got pages of mostly illegible notes re: Under the Skin, but not much time to collate. Rather, like Snowman and the Bandit, I got a long way to go and a short time to get there. So, some quick bulletpoint responses, anyway:

1) We all want to be David Bowie, of course. Or, we all want Walter Tevis to have written us, anyway. And, no, sadly, regrettably, unforgivably, I haven’t read the novel Under the Skin is working from. But what I imagine is some amalgamation of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer via Jennifer Egan’s story “Black Box.” Though of course I want there be some Brother from Another Planet in there, as well. Eyeballs-as-spycams is where it’s at, alien-wise.

2) Species, Splice, Lifeforce, and all the many-many different kinds of women that apparently come from the moon: it’s never with good intentions, is it? Is this story tendency expressing some male insecurity? Is ‘space’ somehow coded ‘female’—this not unphallic ship penetrating it—but it’s so basically unknowable that it comes back, gives mankind a taste of its (his?) own medicine? I don’t know. I’ve never tried to write one of those stories. Maybe there’s something else making all these women so killer-mean.

3) All horror has a cautionary aspect. The warning here is that, if she looks too good to be picking you up off the side in the road in a giant cargo van, well, you’re probably already dead.

4) We earthlings are either endlessly fascinated by aliens who can ‘pass’ as us, who can mimic us, or else special effects crews are very, very good at convincing the story department that no, really, the scene is better if there’s no tail, no head-antennae. And I think they’re right. I mean, it’s the old Cold War paranoia that your neighbor might not really be your neighbor. But it’s still got some play, too. And some teeth as well.

5) To those who have already seen it (meaning, this could be a spoiler, this is a spoiler, look away, go to #6 already, quit reading this, I’m just making it long in case you’re indecisive, need a moment for your good instincts to kick in): is this basically the same premise as Phantasm?

6) What if the aliens came here and we were inscrutable? What if it turns out we’re the ocean on/of Solaris?

7) Aliens and robots are only interesting when they deviate from their mission/programming.

8) Under the Skin isn’t a talky movie by any stretch of any imagination. Which is fine. I can do meaningful stares, I can pick up meaning from other junk. However. Having the character lounge around in a fog bank while she’s in her extreme state of indecision? A bit much, perhaps? Maybe in the novel it turns out that suspended water molecules properly refract a homing signal or fry telepathy or somesuch. Which: fine, wonderful. I hope so. Please.

9) So the supposition here, it’s that if a vast alien intelligence, to whom we’re amoebas on fleas on dogs, pretty much, if that intelligence decided to make the perfect woman as bait to lure in male specimens . . . now put some quatation marks on that, and suspect that that had to be the pitch they hit Johansson with, yes? I can’t imagine a more flattering role.

Ghost-World-scarlett-johansson-23593999-852-48010) Talking Scarlett Johansson: it’s nice to see her, for a moment, back at a booth in a diner. Seems kind of like that’s where it all started.

11) A good story to read as prep for this is Neil Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.”

12) Another, you’ve already read, of course: “They’re Made out of Meat.”

13) There’s a transformation/unmasking sequence here that’s completely worth the price of admission.

14) Don’t feel bad if the dialect is very Snatch, and hard to track for lazy American ears; either you adapt or it gets better—or there’s little enough dialogue that you don’t really miss anything either way.

15) Chris Carter has been warning us about black oil and aliens for a long time, now. When is anybody finally going to have listened?

16) This has to be intentional—and I’m putting this as the last bulletpoint as it’s spoilery, so please skip if you haven’t seen it: when the, let’s say ‘logger’ enters the scene and attempts a rape, then this has to be commentary on the sex scene that just happened, doesn’t it? Which was just as uncomfortable, as there was zero-minus-ten consent. There wasn’t even the sense that she could consent. Which I think is maybe supposed to get us back on her ‘side,’ after the beach-scene, which pretty much just destroys you?

17) Okay, the real last bulletpoint: not sure I completely trust the end. Or, it’s a very art-house, thematic way to close it. Which isn’t what I’m prepared for at the cineplex. I think the story would have been better served with a gesture we could interpret as hopeful in some way. Don’t hit us over the head, like the fog did, but take a risk, I say. I’m never a fan of a safe ending. Much more interested in beautiful failures than the middle of the road.

Under-the-Skin-35823_9

though I do dig the kind of elegiac photography, especially in that it never quite indulges in its own style too much.

Chapter Six

Chapter-Six-Stephen-Graham-JonesClickable on Amazon, readable at Tor.com.

It’s a story of how anthropologists might handle the apocalypse, how academics deal with zombies. Pretty short, and a pretty cool cover.

Thanks to Ellen Datlow both for selecting it and then for editing it into a better form of itself.