June 1, 2012 § Leave a Comment
One of the most interesting aspects of the Berkshire International Film Festival has been its embrace of the horror genre. Certainly the festival is not overrun with horror titles, but each year there is special care taken to bring in works of interest within the indie realm, often low budget, but never trashy.
Past efforts have seen such offerings as last year’s magnificent Lovecraft adaptation, “The Whisperer in Darkness,” and this year introduces the British film “The Holding.”
Let’s not mince words: “The Holding” is not only a horror film, it is slasher film. Let’s say that again so it is clear in everyone’s heads: “The Holding” is a slasher film. With slashing. And killing. And more slashing.
It is also an extremely interesting effort with much to reward anyone who is willing to giving themselves to the genre and dive into steep harrowing tension for 90 minutes.
But when you enter the theater, understand that you are going to watch a slasher film and forgo any pearl clutching about it.
Think “The Field” with violent revenge and misogyny as not only its themes, but the reason for its cascading action.
In “The Holding,” abandoned wife Cassie (Kierston Wareing) attempts to keep her farm that has hit on troubled times, as well as raise two daughters, with one entering the teen rebellion phase (Skye Lourie) and the other preoccupied with the Bible (Georgia Groome).
All are trying to cope with the disappearance of her husband and their father as well as the hostile encroachments of a neighboring creepy farmer, Karsten (Terry Stone), when Aden (Vincent Regan) enters their lives. Claiming to be a friend of Cassie’s husband, he insinuates himself into their lives and slowly begins to at least attempt to control all aspects of their lives.
I don’t think I spoil anything by saying there is something not quite right with Aden, especially since the film doesn’t lead you on either.
It dispenses with any pretense to the contrary fairly early on, and the appeal is frankly in the suspense of when Cassie will wake up and see the truth, and the terror of Aden as he goes about his nasty business.
Aden is a slasher character, sure, but he also functions as a metaphor for the problems and secrets you try to escape. If you don’t deal, they will pursue you, and just when you need them the least, they will pounce on you with a violent fury.
Such is the case with “The Holding.” In fact, the clue to this subtext is right in the title of the film. Cassie’s “holding” is the farm — her heritage, her family’s work, the past — and also the site of one of her biggest secrets, which will not go away and figures into her refusal to sell the place.
Even without that subtext, “The Holding” still stands up as an entertaining slasher movie.
Though the plot resembles “The Stepfather,” the execution reveals great skill by director Susan Jacobson that hints this might someday be qualified as a lesser work in an impressive filmography, and that’s not bad at all.
May 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
As one of the most influential American horror writers ever, H.P. Lovecraft’s reputation is inestimable, but I get the impression that more people are familiar with the works he inspired than his own.
This is partially a problem of language and time. The further we get away from the period in which Lovecraft wrote — the early 20th century — the more alien and impenetrable his language can become. He was a verbose guy, given to narrative histrionics, and while this all added up to a one of a kind style, it also obscures some of the pleasures of his ideas to modern and, especially, younger audiences.
“The Lovecraft Anthology” attempts to reconcile that by adapting several of his short stories into graphic form, allowing the language to coexist with the stark visuals he conjures for more clarity and chills. It’s an entirely successful collection that gets to the heart of what Lovecraft stories are about. Of course, they’re about all the things many other horror stories are about — paranoia, fear, darkness, monsters, mysteries, secrets, the supernatural — but these are just the singular parts of them. Together, Lovecraft’s stories hint at something larger going on in the world, something hidden away that is slowly returning.
The seven stories contained within, including “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” realized by creators like Ian Edginton and D’Israeli — and there isn’t one better than the other in the bunch, they are all great and equally successful — work together to make clear that central horror.
There is something wrong in the world, some universal secret stretching back to the earliest days of the universe, that lies at the center of the Lovecraft mythos. He used these central ideas to craft his tales, and editor Dan Lockwood has brought together a group of tales that understand they are all bits of the same story, required to drag you into their own horrors while playing an integral part as a piece of a delicious, nightmarish puzzle that calls for further volumes.
October 25, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Graphic novelist Richard Sala cures the zombie apocalypse malaise with a new book that takes the basic set-up of those tales and turns it into an artsy, comical, downright weird exercise in terror that brings together several slices of the horror genre for one onslaught. Something weird has happened to the world — there’s a full-scale slaughter being enacted by monstrous creeps who are tearing apart the cities and leaving trails of bodies. One mysterious man flees the scene and is found much later, practically catatonic in a cave. His rescuers, Tom and Colleen, embark on a quest for safety with him and, along the way, encounter more nightmarish tales of what is going on in the world, as well as the secrets of why it is happening.
Sala initially introduces a world beset by zombie creatures, but he brings in elements of vampires and, most importantly, Frankenstein, for a wellrounded horror tale that blends these three traditional horror elements into something modern and surprising.
Equally, Sala’s art style helps the story ride high — his dark cartoons manage to suck you into the narrative while still highlighting the meta quality of the story. This is a story about horror as much as it is a horror story, examining the themes that draw us into these stories as much as they are utilized by authors to comment on the real world. Somewhere between those two intentions lies “The Hidden,” a modernist horror tale that acts like the zombies it evokes, cannibalizing the genres from which it sprang and spewing out something new from those entrails.
July 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose paranoid tales perfectly reflect the mind they came out of, has seldom been captured on screen with the same prosaic intensity as any of his written work, but one source for superior adaptations has been the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, which this year released “The Whisperer In Darkness.”
In this earlier film, director Andrew Leman and screenwriter Sean Branney adapt Lovecraft’s short story in the style of a silent era film, and accomplish the important task of capturing the era in which the tale was written. It’s a multi-layered tale of one man’s investigation into the past, his own grand-uncle’s obsession with a sculpture of a monster, which leads to a terrifying trail of dreams and the history of the word “Cthulhu.” Eventually, the convoluted mystery unfolds with a cult and a monster.
The movie is heavy on atmosphere and, by proxy, suspense, the monster is charming and the entire venture, while obviously low budget, is a thrill. “The Call of Cthulhu” manages to inject the idea of fun back into horror even as it embraces the sprawling mythology of Lovecraft’s backstory that has proven hard to include in film adaptations. This accomplishes two feats at the same time — it makes it more accessible even as it achieves a richness that is sure to please Lovecraft diehards. This just goes to show that the supposed impossibility of cinema — that it can adapt literature without compromise to the original material and intention — is entirely achievable when the filmmakers wish to achieve it.
January 3, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In “The Horror, The Horror,” author Jim Trombetta investigates another lost, persuasive chunk of popular culture. This one, however, was escorted away from the public eye by the official acts of the U.S. Government, rather than a competing corporation filing a lawsuit.
Trombetta puts forth the idea that cheesy horror comics from the ‘50s were a subversive form of social criticism that was beaten down by mainstream society and the American government through fear mongering.
Through a series of exciting and intelligent essays that accompany bizarre, grotesque and hilarious examples from the actual comics, “The Horror, The Horror” shows he may just have a point. In the revisionist view of the ‘50s, rock and roll was co-opted by the big entertainment business and transformed into clean rebellion for a profit, but comic books sold ideas so dangerous they had to be destroyed.
The end of comic books didn’t quite happen, but the medium was emasculated by the hearings of the 1950s, creating a format that centered on the juvenile superhero fantasies. Prior to this, crime, war, horror, humor, science fiction and romance all dominated the form, and much of it was aimed at adults.
Before becoming the only art form officially censored by the American government, comics could claim millions of readers each month and a highly significant chunk of the American pop culture.
Trombetta’s book introduces readers not only to the concepts and their meaning, but also to the colorful players and their creations. There is plenty of thought given to the nature of zombies, murderers, shrunken heads, sinister grins and other affectations of the genre — and their relationship with the social order of post World War II America.
The book is filled with over-the-top delights that tapped into the nation’s psyche and helped to herald the ‘60s generation, which looked at authority with the same distrust as the comics the generation was raised on.
One of the most interesting revelations about the horror comics of these eras is that they have fueled the visuals of what horror films eventually became. Movies of the time, burdened by their technology, could never unfold with the same frenzy as comics — and therefore were a lot less effective at causing nightmares.
At least there was a buffer zone between a matinee of “The Thing” and bedtime — but you could take a flashlight under the covers and read “Beware! Terror Tales” or “Diary of Horror,” and the nightmares were realized in real time, lurking just beyond your sheet. These horror tales were immediate and alive and more visually realistic than anything yet encountered.
At the same time, the reaction against them used that very fact as evidence against them in the biggest government effort ever to censor creativity — something that should put horror comics as prominent in the liberal freedom-of-speech hall of fame as Hollywood blacklisting.
As a bonus, the book includes a DVD of a television episode advocating for the Senate to outlaw horror comic books. It’s both dry and chilling at the same time. The best part is the propaganda montage that treats footage of kids reading comics as if it were footage of them shooting up.
These stories were all the more chilling because of their relevance to real life. In his essays, Trombetta links zombie stories with the Korean War, shrunken heads as the chilling detritus of World War II shame, and werewolves as a crumbling to society’s insistence on shame and suppression. And he does so masterfully. A few stories are reprinted in total, but space is mostly given over to snippets and covers that turn this into the art book of the year, as strong in its essays as in the work it presents.
Review: The Swamp of the Ravens, Zombie, No Survivors Please, Blood and Black Lace, Legend of the Witches
November 3, 2010 § Leave a Comment
November 11, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Rendered in a grim and sketchy black-and-white, Guy Davis’ “The Marquis: Inferno” is an old-fashioned horror tale in the best sense of the notion — evoking the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce, or more recently films like Ken Russell’s “The Devils,” as it uncovers its tale of obsessive retribution and the evils one must perform in the name of sanctity.
In 18th-century Venisalle — a made-up European city that serves as a psychological, as well as physical landscape — the church controls all, even the police. Despite its strong arm, the institution’s work is cut out for it — Venisalle is a capitol of sin, with vice lurking around every corner and sometimes right in plain sight.
Former Inquisitor Vol de Galle has taken it upon himself to cleanse the city by ridding it of devils — literally. Called to duty by Saint de Massard through a mystical — or, perhaps, psychotic — experience, de Galle dons a black costume, arms himself with mysterious weaponry and stalks the possessed amongst the populace, coaxing out the actual demons before putting an end to them.
Unfortunately for de Galle — or The Marquis, as he is known — it’s not the bodies of the demons that remain, but the people they possessed. With a stream of mutilated carcasses in his wake, de Galle is hunted by the church and police as a mass murderer, the ultimate evil in a city ravaged by sin. And the quest is not so simple for de Galle — so single-minded in his purpose is he that the truth behind his mission might destroy him faster than the otherworldly monsters he combats.
Davis’s story takes the idea of a superhero — particularly the obsessive, dark Batman archetype — and transplants it into a fictionalized historical situation that rings true. The authenticity of the presentation combines with the inherent surrealism of the same to create a surreal adventure of good versus evil that ponders the realities of either side.
Darting between de Galle’s apparent madness and informed righteousness, Davis presents a story of great horror that adapts the archaic trappings of its source material to great effect, from the inner dialogue that defines the adventures of The Marquis to the officious bickering of the church and police officials tracking him down.
What really differentiates the demons from the humans they seek to destroy really comes down to manners. When The Marquis faces any of these creatures, their straightforward proclamations about the way the universe works and the dark truth of The Marquis’ endeavors put them in an unlikely position of honesty, in contrast to the human authority that dances around the situation in favor of the decorum of social privilege. This is just one level to the remarkable depth that Davis brings horror, during an era where shallowness has almost doomed it more than any of the Devil’s minions ever could.
September 12, 2008 § Leave a Comment
Rick Geary takes his skill for evoking Victorian era crimes and turns it to fiction with his colorful, creepy adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man.”
In the latest of the new Classics Illustrated series, Geary continues to differentiate the modern day line from its dry ancestors with the kind of energy and detail that is more typical of a BBC adaptation of a classic than anything Classics Illustrated ever offered. The old line always carried a certain stigma with it — why not read the original? They came off a bit like Cliff’s Notes. The new versions, however, stand on their own and cement graphic storytelling as a form for adaptation as legitimate as film — and perhaps more so.
Wells’ original tale stands counter to the current vogue of both horror and science fiction, functioning as an intimate tale of a small local incident. Geary’s renderings capture this perfectly, following a small group of locals whose investigations and speculations dance around the mystery of the strange lodger in Mrs. Hall’s house.
Wells’ suggests that paranoia and gossip have their place — each presents formidable weapons against the sinister invisible weirdo — and that societies do well to be wary of outsiders. There is also sympathy for the Invisible Man though — mad with power, but a power so silly, so not worth becoming explosive over. The irony is not lost on Geary — the idea that a naked man is terrorizing a town is front and center in Geary’s adaptation. It seems that Geary is laughing and crying at the notion at the same time — so, too, will the readers.
May 16, 2008 § Leave a Comment
One man’s cheese is the result of another man’s boundless creativity — that’s the lesson of Jeffrey Schwartz’s “Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story,” a rip-roaring documentary that traces the career of schlock horrormeister Castle through a series of film clips, delightful interviews and audio recordings of Castle speaking about his work.
William Castle was a legitimate director of B movies in Hollywood when, in the 1950s, he started to produce pictures fitting his own vision, movies that embraced a crazy sort of gimmickry that borrowed from sideshows and P.T. Barnum more than anything else. In this way, Castle was less a filmmaker than a showman, and his publicity stunts mirror this side of him — skeletons and monsters that fly off the screen and into the audience, theater seats outfitted with buzzers meant to startle the audience, special viewing glasses designed to obscure the screen ghosts and thus help the faint at heart and — what I think is his ultimate effort — the offer of a refund before the finale of a chilling movie that requires all takers to sit in a coward’s corner in the lobby.
Charming interviewee John Waters disagrees — he calls casting Joan Crawford in one film the ultimate gimmick. Castle films, on the screen, were all about monsters and villains and spooks, but in the total picture, they were all about the experience — and they involve a form of interactive fun that has left the cineplex entirely, relegated to the give-and-take of the computer screen, which often lacks the self-parody and the mischievous poking of its own audience.
The film also frames Castle in context of his contemporaries and unveils his connections, which might be surprising. Castle started out as Bela Lugosi’s assistant and eventually ended up as Harry Cohn’s erstwhile protégé at Columbia Pictures, where he was a contract director. He worked with Orson Welles on “The Lady From Shanghai” as second unit director — it was Castle, in fact, who discovered and secured the property, originally planning to direct it himself.
Castle was also the unofficial gnat that irritated Alfred Hitchcock and saw himself as a real competitor for the king of suspense sweepstakes. In fact, many of the interviewees point out that Hitchcock lifted a few pages from the William Castle book when he promoted certain of his films, most notably “Psycho” and “The Birds,” with gimmicky warnings and offers. Each man successfully branded themselves as inseparable from their movies, which was almost unheard of in that era, when filmmaking was a secret society to so many moviegoers, especially kids. Yet the kids preferred Castle and later in the lives, he still looms large in their hearts — Waters dismissed Hitchcock as not as cool as Castle, pointing out, “he only had one suit.”
That’s the real strength of this movie — the enthusiasm of the interviewees, who manage to create an almost-party style atmosphere, particularly with Castle’s daughter, Terry Castle, a lively and animated presence who shares her father’s chutzpah. “Spine Tingler” is a paean not only to days gone by but also to the type of huckster genius that no longer exists. Instead of taking the crass and modern attitude of poking fun at this lost world, “Spine Tingler” is a good natured romp that celebrates its beauty and offers clear reasons why there is a reason to mourn its passing.