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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Retro Review: Howard Phillips Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space

H.P. Lovecraft is a minor passion of mine. While others may have finished reading his complete works, or know his various stories and lore more completely, I have a deep and abiding appreciation for his writing. His style, his influence, his prolixity are unmatched in horror fiction.

It appears to me our modern society does not appreciated him nearly enough, yet each time I think so I run into websites set up by such outfits like the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Such electronic encounters give me ease when it comes to Lovecraft's legacy.

My very first foray into Lovecraftian horror was fortunately also one of his best pieces, The Colour Out of Space. This science fiction-horror short story, written in 1927, was far ahead of its time, and after one reads it it is easy to see the tremendous influence it had. It is also, in my humble opinion, one of the few Lovecraft stories which would translate rather easily to film, if anyone had the intestinal fortitude to try it. Simply, it is the story of what happens to a quiet New England farm after a meteor falls on it.

Set in the dark, ancient, and inevitably creepy woods surrounding Lovecraft's fictional Arkham, Massachusetts, the story unfolds through the voice of a big-city surveyor recounting his adventure of seeking out the lay of the land for a future reservoir project, curious about what the few locals left in the tenebrous region name as the "blasted heath."

"Blasted heath" you say?
"There was no vegetation of any kind on that broad expanse, but only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed ever to blow about. The trees near it were sickly and stunted, and many dead trunks stood or lay rotting at the rim. As I walked hurriedly by I saw the tumbled bricks and stones of an old chimney and cellar on my right, and the yawning black maw of an abandoned well whose stagnant vapours played strange tricks with the hues of the sunlight."
Our narrator is unable to get to the bottom of the cause of the blasted heath, beyond what appeared to have been some mysterious sequence of events some fifty years earlier. But alas, there was an old, some say crazy, man by the name of Ammi Pierce who could recount the tale in its entirety. And as a result of hearing old Ammi Pierce's tale, our narrator returned forthwith to Boston, resigned his position, and swore never to drink the water in Arkham under any circumstances. And that's just the first three pages.

What Ammi related to the unnamed narrator is that in June of 1882 a meteorite fell on his friend and neighbor's farm, a man by the name of Nahum Gardner. Up until that time the Gardner farm had been a series of fertile gardens and orchards. The object was studied by professors of the nearby Miskatonic University in Arkham, and found to be plastic in nature, and of a nearly indescribable colour to the eye. Tests revealed the meteor acted very strangely, never cooling, and displaying unknown colours when placed in a spectroscope.

While Lovecraft, as was ofttimes his wont, never revealed the precise nature of the meteor, suffice it to say that there was some sort of beforehand unknown alien life, the nature of which could not be understood by humans. Lovecraft had, for a layman, a rather good grasp of science, and understood that alien life would be so different as to likely be unrecognized by even the best scientific minds. This is what he gives us a taste of in "Colour."

Lovecraft writes at some length about the various tests performed on the mysterious object, including various acids and bases, and that the reactions are peculiar.

Lovecraft also understood, perhaps better than others at the time, the concepts of pollution and leeching, which are important to the story, as the residue of the meteor plays havoc with the Gardners' harvest in 1882. The leeching and poisoning of the earth and the water also has a far more insidious effect on the family themselves, in addition to the flora and fauna. Lovecraft had the inkling that objects from outer space might be unhealthful to the Earth.

The story progresses steadily with ominous overtones, from the high of Nahum's near celebrity for the rock to have fallen on his farm, to the failed harvest, to finding queer tracks in the snow that winter, to a neighbor shooting a woodchuck that was apparently terribly and indescribably deformed, to plants growing in monstrous shape and colour. This ever present, furtive, baleful atmosphere of dread is Lovecraft at his best, and builds to a terrifying crescendo. And the next spring and the following summer would be for the worst, at least for Nahum and the rest of the Gardners. Madness, decay, blasphemy and much worse lurked just behind the period at the end of each sentence.

Just about every insidious alien invasion movie, [as opposed to overt invasions, like Independence Day or V, which owe their inspiration H.G. Wells], from The Blob to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, from It Came From Outer Space to The Thing From Another World, from Lifeforce to The Thing, all owe their existence to The Colour Out of Space. Which says a lot, as it is a mere 15 or so pages, depending on the printing.

I strongly suggest to any lover of horror and science fiction to read and reread Lovecraft. And if you have never read any of his stories, I suggest that you make The Colour Out of Space your first. After that you will be inextricably hooked.

TRAILER TRASH: The Fly Edition!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Ultimate Monster Movie Mash-Up!

In place of the Vault Vlog this week, I give you this incredible video, cross-posted (a.k.a. stolen outright) from Day of the Woman. It was created almost a year ago by the apparently brilliant Mark & Chris Wournell, so kudos to them. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hump-Day Harangue: Which Michael Myers Is Scarier?

Earlier this week, I took part in a roundtable discussion over at HorrorBlips.com on what appeared to me to be a very one-sided topic. The question that was posed to bloggers like myself, Stacie Ponder of Final Girl, BC of Horror-Movie-a-Day, Bryan White of Cinema Suicide and others, was this: Which version of Michael Myers is scarier, John Carpenter's original character, or the version created by Rob Zombie for his remake?

Yes, I know, who in their right mind would choose the new Michael, right? Well, that's what I thought too, and lo and behold, not a single blogger polled did so. In other words, it was a landslide for Carpenter's Shape.

For those of you who haven't had an opportunity to check out the article at HorrorBlips, here is my contribution:

I would say, hands down, that John Carpenter's original conception of Michael Myers is the more frightening version. The mistake that Rob Zombie made was giving us way too much background information on Michael, almost trying to make him sympathetic.

The complete mystery of the original is far superior—it's almost as if Michael is less a person and more a force of nature. In the remake, we are made to understand how Michael got the way he is, and why he kills. In the original, we have no idea why—he seems to be just a normal little boy who one day decides to start killing people. This is far more chilling.

I understand why Zombie did what he did; obviously he felt he needed to add something, rather than simply regurgitate what Carpenter had already done. Unfortunately, however, the result points out even more clearly why a remake was pointless in the first place—from a creative standpoint, anyway.

So what do you say, HorrorBlips? Next time, give us a question we can really debate. This one was a no-brainer!

The Tuesday Top 10: Favorite Horror Movies of the 1950s

In the spirit of previous lists in which I compiled my favorite horror films of the 1930s and the 1940s, this time out I'm switching my attention to the decade of Elvis and Eisenhower; to a simpler time when children sang along with Howdy Doody, and hid under their school desks to escape nuclear annihilation.

The 1950s was an amazing time for terror, filled with giant critters, 3-D nightmares, drive-in grotesqueries and the birth of sci-fi horror. There are so many to choose from, but if you held me down at gunpoint, these would probably be my ten favorite...

10. The Fly (1958)
I've really grown to appreciate the original version more and more over the years. As excellent as the Cronenberg remake is (and there's no doubt it's more terrifying), there's something about this classic that gets under my skin. I really love the mask, which was very effective, especially compared to later installments. And who could forget that ending... "Help meeeee!!"

9. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
The birth of the true Hammer horror tradition, this film took a Universal classic, melded it with the original Shelley source text, and created a gruesome hybrid that's a joy to behold. Peter Cushing is at the height of his powers, Chris Lee rocks the house in some serendipitously hideous Frank makeup, and then of course, the lovely and late Hazel Court ain't so hard on the eyes.

8. House of Wax (1953)
We must laud this film for doing two things: popularizing 3-D, and anointing Vincent Price as the crown prince of horror. This one scared the crap out of me as a kid, and made me swear off wax museums for years! The makeup is brilliant, the garish technicolor suitably sickening, and then of course there's Price himself. Do I really need to say that's he amazing? Well, I'll say it anyway: He's amazing.

7. Gojira (1954)
I didn't really understand that this was a true horror film until I saw the Japanese original. For anyone who's only ever seen the 1956 American re-edit with Raymond Burr, I can't stress strongly enough the need to check this out. The brooding cinematography, along with Akira Ifukube's powerful score, help make this tale of Tokyo's obliteration absolutely horrifying to behold.

6. The Thing from Another World (1951)
The remake may be superior--in this case even moreso than that of The Fly--but that's no reason to give short shrift to the original, as is often done. Luminaries such as Stephen King, John Carpenter and my dad have cited it as one of the most influential horror films of their youth, and with good reason. This gem almost single-handedly kicked off the sci-fi/horror craze of the '50s, and did it better than nearly any other flick in the subgenre.

5. Night of the Demon (1957)
Probably the least-known film on this list, this British entry directed by Jacques Tourneur (one of Val Lewton's proteges) is a broiling kettle of occult goodness. Based on a classic M.R. James short story, it also features a hideous creature that is seen very little throughout the picture, but leaves a lasting impression. This one will stay with you for sure.

4. Les Diaboliques (1955)
Is it just me, or are there a ton of foreign films on this list? Now it's time for the French to get their due, for this stellar motion picture that's one of the best ever made, horror or otherwise. The wife and mistress of a vicious headmaster manage to kill the guy, then somehow lose the body. Here's a film that clearly influenced Hitchcock's Psycho, as well as decades of tense thrillers that would follow. Bathtub scene=unforgettable.

3. Horror of Dracula (1958)
Many consider this the finest version of Dracula ever filmed. And although I'll always have a soft spot for Bela Lugosi, I must admit that Terence Fisher's vampire opus is a rich, atmospheric piece of horror candy, to be savored with relish. Christopher Lee is dripping with menace as the Count, plus for the first time in a major vampire movie, we get actual fangs and blood galore!

2. Them! (1954)
There's something about this movie that just seems to have gotten into our collective subconscious. Maybe it's the whole fear of bugs thing. Ask anyone who's ever seen it to name their favorite horror films, and it's more than likely that this title will come up. Much better than 99% of the giant-irradiated-creature flicks that filled 1950s cinemas, this one does what so many of them failed to: It's actually extremely scary.

1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Yes, it's an obvious allegory for America's fear of Communist infiltration, but this classic original is also a damn fine horror movie that gets everything right. From acting (Kevin McCarthy is amazing) to special effects, to music and beyond, it's an absolute opus of terror from beginning to end. There's something about the dreadful inevitability of it all that gets me every time--in a way, this flick is a precursor to Night of the Living Dead. Plus there's that image of the pitchfork going into the face of that one pod person... brutal. And what more can be said about that incredible, Twilight Zone-like ending? Remade several times, but the power of the original never gets old.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Congratulations, Newly-deads!

The Vault of Horror wishes all the best to director Paul W.S. Anderson and the lovely Milla Jovovich, who were married Sunday night at their Beverly Hills home, according to People. Anderson and Jovovich first met seven years ago while making the original Resident Evil movie, in which Milla starred as the heroine, Alice. Now that's a match made in horror heaven!

Anderson served as writer director on the later R.E. sequels, also starring Jovovich, and is rumored to be returning to the director's chair for next year's Resident Evil: Afterlife.

Monday, August 24, 2009

TRAILER TRASH: Giant Bug Edition!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Breathers: Worth a Read. Not Worth the Hype.

Amidst the rash of zombie fiction now flooding bookshelves, perhaps no other offering has been more aggressively marketed than S.G. Browne's Breathers: A Zombie's Lament. I approached it with high expectations, and although I enjoyed it very much at times, I walked away from it feeling that my expectations had most certainly not been met.

For example, the last zombie novel I read before Breathers, Jonathan Maberry's Patient Zero, I enjoyed even more, despite the fact that it is far less visible. I also thought World War Z was superior. Breathers is a fine piece of writing, but one that would have worked much better as a short story or novella.

The novel's central conceit, that the dead are returning to life in a world that shuns them and treats them like second-class citizens, is a clever one. Browne's zombies are sentient--they think, feel and speak, and are not the single-minded, ravenous cannibals of the movies, although that element comes into play later.

Our main character is Andy Warner, a particularly mangled ghoul who is unable to speak thanks to the car accident that killed him, damaging his vocal cords in the process. Andy "lives" with his parents--or more accurately, is hidden away in their basement, where he subsists on a steady diet of wine and TV repeats. He also regularly attends a zombie support group populated by some very memorable and well-drawn characters.

Along the way, we learn what it's like to really be a member of the undead, unable to properly interact with the living, devoid of rights, longing to be able to once again enjoy the simple pleasures the living--the "breathers"--take for granted. It can at times be quite moving, at other times quite funny.

Where Breathers falters, however, is in stretching this admittedly brilliant but also slightly flimsy gimmick to full novel length. We are treated to repetitive scenes in the zombie support group, or of Andy butting heads with his parents, and so forth. We are introduced to the completely obvious and predictable plot element of the mysterious jars of oh-so-delicious "venison" which renegade zombie Ray introduces to the group, and which begin to heal the zombies' unhealable posthumous wounds. This miraculous meat and its appeal to the zombies is hammered home in hamfisted scene after scene. I'm not spoiling anything here believe me, but--surprise! It ain't venison... Duh.

There's also the problem of the humor, much of which hinges on the irony of the novel's juxtaposition of the horrific zombie elements and the mundanity of the world in which the story takes place. For example:

"While it's true that being embalmed can get rid of crow's feet and laugh lines and take fifteen years off your obituary, it can also leave your face as hard and fake as a porn star's breasts. Plus the whole process is pretty invasive."

Funny, yes? Witty, no? I agree. But when it comes to humor, the book is a bit of a one-trick pony, and this shtick gets old once you get about 100 pages in. I found myself calling the punchlines before I even got to the end of them, which is never a good thing. OK, Andy, you're a zombie and these gross and normally terrifying things are totally normal to you. We get it. Can we move on, please?

Our hero Andy falls in love with fellow corpse Rita, and it is their relationship from which the novel derives most of its charm. Browne really gets us to feel for these two, and we're right there with them as they try to find love in this bizarre world of the living and the undead coexisting side-by-side so very uncomfortably.

And the other characters in the group are a hoot as well. Jerry, the aging hippy/stoner zombie, steals every scene he's in, and is the source of much of the truly funny stuff to be found here. There's the jaded Naomi, who has the most off-putting habit of putting her cigarettes out in her empty eye socket. And Tom, the sad sack zombie who is forced to attach a completely mismatched arm to his body after his original one is torn off by drunk fraternity pledges.

This is one aspect in which Breathers succeeds where Patient Zero fell a bit short--the characters. From the outset, it's clear that Breathers is more of a character-driven work, while Patient Zero is much more plot-driven. Breathers is the kind of novel that intentionally draws more intention to its tone and style, that you enjoy more for how it's written than what's actually going on. And Browne's writing is solid for a first effort--I just think there wasn't enough meat here (forgive the pun) to cover 310 pages, that's all.

The hype machine latched on to this book and went full bore, playing up its uniqueness--a sophisticated, post-modern take on the zombie subgenre. Unfortunately, this is a case of style over substance, and at least in the case of this reader, the overachieving marketing machine led me to expect a lot more substance than what I actually got.

Furthermore, while the character development and interaction are among the novel's strong suits, both are in the end sabotaged by an ultra-violent and graphic finale that felt very forced and tacked on, almost as if Browne added it to appease the hardcore zombie fans he figured would be picking up the book. Yet, it just doesn't ring true as something we would expect these characters to do, after getting to know them over the course of the novel. Even worse, it follows a scene that, although heartbreaking (especially after much of the light-hearted stuff that preceded it) would've been a much more effective note on which to end things.

While Patient Zero makes no aspirations to "literary" fiction the way that Breathers does, it also delivers on what it promises--a hard-driving action pot-boiler. Whereas Breathers, in the end, falls short of its goal to present us with a rich, well-rounded, bittersweet and quirky zombie romantic comedy.

If you come in with more realistic expectations, Breathers will no doubt be an enjoyable read. I also firmly believe it will make a much better movie than novel, once its Diablo Cody-produced film adaptation hits theaters in 2011. Whereas most movie adaptations butcher their source material by cutting out so much, in this case I think the material will be helped along by cutting away so much of the extraneous stuff and giving us a leaner, more streamlined story.

I firmly recommend Breathers: A Zombie's Lament to those eagerly following the zombie fiction trend. There's nothing else like it out there. But just don't make the mistake of thinking that just because it's the best advertised zombie novel, that it's the best zombie novel.

*MEGA SPOILERS* Learn How True Blood Season 2 Ends!

Once again, our friends over at Ain't It Cool News have landed the scoop on what's to come on everyone's favorite horror-themed soap opera, True Blood. Earlier today, they published episode synopses for the last three remaining installments of the season, including the one airing tonight. So if you have no problem with spoilers, and you really want to know what happens next, read below. And remember this isn't the end, since HBO has officially greenlit a third season for next summer...

Episode #22: “New World in My View”
Debut: SUNDAY, AUG. 23 (9:00-10:00 p.m.)
Sookie, Bill and Jason return to a Bon Temps turned upside down by Maryann. Lured to Merlotte’s by Arlene (Carrie Preston), Sam and Andy find cold comfort in their refuge from a group of bloodthirsty revelers. Bill discovers that traditional vampire techniques don’t work on Maryann; Hoyt and Jessica try to keep a lid on Maxine’s madness; and Sookie tries to push through the darkness consuming Tara. With all hell breaking loose, Jason takes the bull by the horns to rescue Sam, at least for the moment. Written by Kate Barnow & Elizabeth R. Finch; directed by Adam Davidson.

Episode #23: “Frenzy” Debut: SUNDAY, AUG. 30 (9:00-10:00 p.m.) With the crisis in Bon Temps careening out of control, Bill seeks out the advice of Sophie-Anne (Evan Rachel Wood), the Vampire Queen of Louisiana, but must exercise patience before she gives him critical information. Meanwhile, Sookie and Lafayette find that protecting Tara from herself is more difficult than they anticipated; a desperate Sam turns to an unlikely source for assistance; and Jessica tests Hoyt’s allegiance to Maxine. Written by Alan Ball; directed by Dan Minahan.

Episode #24: “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” Debut: SUNDAY, SEPT. 13 (9:00-10:00 p.m.) Bon Temps reaches a fever pitch as Maryann prepares for her ultimate bestial sacrifice, conscripting Sookie to be Maid of Honor at the bloody nuptials. Meanwhile, Sophie-Anne warns Eric to keep the lid on Bill's inquisitiveness; Jason leads Andy into the heroic abyss; and Hoyt struggles with Maxine's endless stream of insults. Deliberating on what may be his final move to save Sookie and the town, Sam places his trust, and his life, in a most unlikely ally.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Announcing the Winner of the Cursed Mountain Giveaway!

I want to thank all of you who sent in contest entries for the Cursed Mountain giveaway, I received more than I even imagined I would. As you may recall, the contest called for readers to send in a paragraph naming the horror movie that first made them a fan of the genre, and why. It was a difficult decision, but a decision has indeed been made. And the winner of the contest, who will receive a free copy of Deep Silver's brand-new survival horror game for the Nintendo Wii, is Jeanetta Adkins of Ashland, Kentucky.

Here's what Jeanetta sent in to the VoH:

The first movie I saw that got me interested in seeing more "scary" movies was The Green Slime, at the drive-in with my parents. I was supposed to be sleeping in the back seat, had my pj's on and everything. But of course, I made sure I was propped up enough to see the action as much as possible. The aliens seemed SO scary to me back then! I remember seeing it as an adult for the first time within the last 10 years, and being amazed at how much scarier my memory was than the real movie itself is. But I still love it and am still a faithful viewer of everything horror/sci-fi to come out in theaters, and have done my best to raise my new 21 year-old daughter [?] with a love of the genres.

Congratulations Jeanetta--and thanks go out to you and everyone else who took the time out to send in an entry. Hopefully there will be more VoH giveaways like this to come, and more chances for you guys to win stuff. In the meantime, you can learn more about Cursed Mountain here, and be looking for it on sale everywhere next Tuesday.

VAULT VLOG: Wolf Man Trailer Reaction

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Retro Review: The Wolf Man

The unveiling of the admittedly impressive trailer for the remake of The Wolf Man today has put me in the mood to take another look at the classic Universal original, so that will be the topic of this week's Retro Review. A daunting task, to be sure, but I'm up to it.

Where to begin? A highly enjoyable and iconic horror film, The Wolf Man is nevertheless not quite of the caliber of its 1930s predecessors Dracula and Frankenstein. By 1941, Universal had already relegated its horror films to the B-unit, meaning that they were no longer given quite the same level of attention as they once had been. Nevertheless, The Wolf Man is most likely the finest Universal horror film produced during the entire decade of the 1940s.

Unlike Tod Browning and James Whale, the directors the other two aforementioned classic monster pictures, George Waggner, the man behind The Wolf Man, was more of a craftsman than an artist. An efficient and competent workhorse who had made a living directing B-horror and B-westerns after a failed career as a silent movie actor, Waggner would later settle into a long and comfortable career as a TV director during the 1950s and '60s.

It is not so much Waggner's touch that distinguishes this film as it is the men responsible for its unique and unforgettable look. Joseph A. Valentine, the man behind the camera, would truly make his mark with this movie, and it's no accident that he was soon picked up by Alfred Hitchcock, who made him cinematographer on such flicks as Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, and Rope. Art Director Jack Otterson was the man responsible for the look of films like Dressed to Kill and Arabian Nights, as well as Universal chestnuts like She-Wolf of London, The Mummy's Tomb, Invisible Agent and The Ghost of Frankenstein. Set decorator R.A. Gausman also worked on Spartacus, Touch of Evil, The Incredible Shrinking Man, This Island Earth and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Together, these three very gifted individuals came up with a finished product which, for my money, makes The Wolf Man the memorable film it is. Just checking out the new trailer today, I can already see some telling homages to their work--including a redo of the famous expressionistic scene in which Gwen hides from the Wolf Man in the woods.

That's not to take anything away from the acting, because there are some very solid performances here. Although he would never be confused with his father, Lon Chaney Jr. is nevertheless suitably sympathetic as the guilt-ridden Larry Talbot, forced to bear the curse of the werewolf. This would be long before his hand-wringing routine would grow old and stale after repeated appearances in later sequels; here he is a figure of true pathos.

Claude Rains also brings a great deal of gravitas--as he always did--by now a mainstream celebrity returning to the genre that made him a star nearly a decade earlier with The Invisible Man. Bela Lugosi has one of his unforgettable cameos as the gypsy werewolf who passes on the curse to Talbot. And of course, there is the one and only Maria Ouspenskaya as the old gypsy woman who schools Larry in the lore of the lycanthrope. An early proponent of the Stanislavsky method and a drama coach for many years, Ouspenskaya steals every single scene she's in.

German expatriate Curt Siodmak provided the script, most noted for its legendary and oft-repeated "werewolf rhyme". Siodmak was a prolific author of mainly horror scripts, who had previously penned Vincent Price's The Invisible Man Returns, The Ape, and The Invisible Woman, and would go on to write Invisible Agent, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Val Lewton's I Walked with a Zombie, Chaney's Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, The Beast with Five Fingers, Creature with the Atom Brain, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, and countless others. He practically invents the modern werewolf mythos here, and needless to say, the actors are in very capable hands.

And what can be said about Jack Pierce's landmark makeup that hasn't already been said? Although some may argue that he did a better job with Henry Hull's makeup years earlier in Werewolf of London, the fact remains that it's his Chaney makeup that is instantly recognizable to this day--and, in my opinion, his most frightening monster creation of them all. As a kid, no Universal monster freaked me out as much as the Wolf Man, and it was as much due to the animalistic abandon with which Chaney played the part as it was Pierce's demonic work.

The Wolf Man is a revered classic from the golden age of horror, and with good reason. It may not be the unassailable masterpiece that Frankenstein, and to a slightly lesser extent Dracula are--but it's still the mother of all werewolf movies, and one hell of an entertaining viewing experience.

Check Out the Brand New Commercial for the Upcoming DEAD SNOW DVD & Blu-Ray...

The newest nazi zombie sensation, out on home video August 31. Although I've heard mixed things about it, I missed the chance to see it during its limited theatrical release. Too curious to pass it up, just added it to the ol' Netflix queue...

A Few Late Night Plugs...

Before I shuffle off to dream pleasant nightmares, I thought it time to thank the fistful of fine bloggers who have been so kind as to bestow upon me some befuddling yet gratifying awards that have been going around the blogosphere like the clap as of late...

Presented to The Vault of Horror by:

Cortez the Killer of Planet of Terror

BJ-C of Day of the Woman

John Kenneth Muir of Reflections on Film and TV

Brad McHargue of I Love Horror

T.L. Bugg of The Lightning Bug's Lair


Presented to The Vault of Horror by:

Monster Scholar of Monster Land

Ms. Harker of Musings Across a Continuum

Brad McHargue of I Love Horror

BJ-C of Day of the Woman

Thanks to all. Now enough of this mutual admiration society--quit the back-patting, and get back to work!

* * * * * * * * * *

And while I have your attention, I'd like to make it official that I am no longer the only one in my household with a blog. That's right, because my daughter, whom you may know as the irrepressible Zombelina--all seven years of her--now has officially carved out her very own corner of the internet. It's called Book Town, and it features her very own insights and commentary on the stuff she loves to read. So if you have a kid you think might be interested, or if perhaps you're just young at heart, please be so kind as to pay it a visit. She's real cute and smart, and she'll appreciate it very much.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hump-Day Harangue: So, About This Walking Dead TV Series...

A couple days ago, the news tore through the online horror universe like crap through a goose. Robert Kirkman's acclaimed The Walking Dead comic book series has officially been optioned by AMC as a TV series to be directed by Frank Darabont. And let me just say, I'm very excited about it. But my excitement comes with certain caveats. Allow me to explain.

I started reading The Walking Dead from the very first issue, back in 2003. That's right, I read the original monthly issues--none of that trade paperback or hardcover stuff for me. I was overjoyed to find an ongoing comic book series about a zombie apocalypse, and one that seemed to be smartly written, and amazingly drawn.

Speaking of drawn, I'll say that it was the stunning artwork by Tony Moore that helped take the book to a whole other level. Unfortunately, after only six issues, Moore abruptly departed. That was the first blow. He was replaced by Charlie Adlard, an artist I never warmed up to. I found his work to be sloppy, uninspired, and even confusing.

With Moore gone, my interest in the book began to wane. The shoddy artwork began to draw attention to the flaws in Kirkman's writing. The multitude of similar characters who became hopelessly impossible to distinguish from on another under Adlard's pen and brush. Then there was the snail's-pace plot development, which devolved into soap opera, in which whole issues would go by without a single zombie, let alone any action whatsoever.

The book had great promise. On paper, it's an excellent concept: Charting the ongoing efforts of a group of survivors in a world overrun by the undead. Kind of like a great zombie movie that doesnt end after just two hours, but shows you what happens week after week, and month after month. But my problem was with the execution. The problem was, nothing much happened.

I remember an issue which ended with our heroes mistakenly wandering into a gated community swarming with ghouls. You'd think this would be fodder for a whole bunch of issues overflowing with zombie action, but Kirkman wraps it up in just one issue, then takes the characters to the shelter of an abandoned prison, where they remain seemingly forever, interacting solely with each other while the zombies remain harmlessly outside the gates.

Still, being the zombie lover that I am, I gave the book every chance. I stuck with it for three years, despite the fact that I started losing interest after only six months. But I finally had to give up.

Through all that time, what kept me engaged was the great concept, which I knew, as other readers did, would make for a great television series. There had never been a zombie TV series, and certainly in this age of quality cable shows, the time was ripe. Naturally, most hoped for an eventual HBO run, since that seemed the most approptiate outlet.

And so now, years after I walked away from the book, ironically, comes the news that finally, The Walking Dead will indeed become a TV series. And despite my abandonment of the comic, I will admit that my interest has been greatly piqued, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, those early issues of the series are very strong, and will make for some killer episodes. Then, there's the Darabont factor. The man is a gifted director, with a head for genre material, and I have no doubt he can deliver a product that is actually superior to the material on which it's based.

However, the show must avoid the pitfalls that doomed the book, in my eyes. To go an entire episode in which we completely forget that the world has been taken over by zombies would be disastrous, quite frankly. Kirkman made the rather pretentious claim at one point that the title referred not to the zombies, but to the human characters--and his readers rightly called him out on it within the book's copious fan letter pages. The writer eventually backed down and even admitted himself that it was a bit of a heavy-handed conceit, or at least one that George Romero had already exhaustively mined.

To be a success, this show needs to deliver the goods, and not become the boring soap that the book became. It also needs to work around the constraints of commercial TV. AMC has freer reign than broadcast networks, but its not as free as HBO or Showtime. But then again, this book isn't so much about the gore factor, anyway, so maybe that won't be much of a problem.

There are a lot of people excited about this project, and with good reason. But I wonder how many of them actually read the comic book, especially as long as I did. Sure, it is a great idea, and had moments of greatness, including the torture of Michonne at the hands of the Governor, or the stuff at Herschel's farmhouse... but for the most part, in my opinion, it fell far short of its potential. And I'm hoping this show won't do the same.

So don't get me wrong here--I am excited about a Walking Dead TV series, and have been hoping for one for the past five years. However, I can't blindly heap praise on a comic book I found to be often disappointingly sub-par. And so I charge Mr. Darabont: Amaze me, sir. Fix Kirkman's mistakes. Work your magic and turn a great concept into a great television series. And I promise to tune in every single week.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

District 9 Does NOT Disappoint

[Tonight, a very special reader-submitted review of the incredible new flick District 9, first published a few days ago on Day of the Woman. Loyal Vault Dweller Wendy Winant Bodine sent this in to me--enjoy, and check out the movie at your earliest convenience...]

As a witness to the viral video campaign for this film for the past 6 months (it’s been going on for at least over a year now), I had some idea of what District 9 was going to be about probably a bit more so than those who hadn’t noticed the campaign. But that still didn’t prepare me for much of what was witnessed at the midnight showing I attended last weekend. I also knew that producer Peter Jackson wouldn’t let me down, having been a fan of not only the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but his earlier horror work with Braindead (1992) and Bad Taste (1987). And the short film by fledgling director Neill Blomkamp upon which the film was crafted (“Alive in Joburg” (2005)) left enough of a pleasant aftertaste to make one look forward to the cinematic buffet that is District 9.

The film tells of a race of aliens whose mothership comes to rest directly over Johannesburg, South Africa, sometime in the early '80s. After several days with no action on the aliens’ part, humans make their way to the ship and literally drag the occupants out under the pretense of helping them. They set them up in what was supposed to be a temporary facility that quickly grew into the slum known as “District 9”. Heavily regulated and living in squalor, the aliens just want to be left alone, or better yet, to be allowed to return to their ship, although the humans keep insisting that them leaving is not an option. While the humans in charge of District 9 talk continually of their desire to help the aliens, the real motive is to gain access to their highly-advanced weaponry. The aliens are so hard pressed, they willingly trade their technology for food. All their technology is useless to humans, however, as it is all biologically based on the alien’s DNA—only they can use it.

Enter Wikus van der Merwe, an executive at Multi-National United (MNU), the mega-corporation hired by the government to take charge of the upcoming relocation of the aliens to “District 10”, a supposedly better living area. Wikus and his team, assisted by MNU mercenaries lead by the malicious Obesandjo 7, attempt to serve the aliens with eviction notices to make the move as uncomplicated as possible. While inspecting one shack, Wikus runs across a vial of black fluid, which he unwittingly sprays into his face. This is the turning point for the future of aliens and humans alike, as the chemical spreads into Wikus’ system, altering his DNA and slowly morphing him into an alien. When MNU becomes aware of this, they seize him and, rather than trying to save him, force him to test alien weaponry, which he does reluctantly but successfully. MNU plans to dissect him for further study, to see how alien DNA can be merged with human so that humans can use alien technology. Wikus escapes and finds sanctuary in the only place he can—District 9.

This movie is a breath of fresh air in a long-stale movie atmosphere of too many remakes and sequels, of brain-dead bathroom humor and teen-oriented romances. My main pleasure was finding out how intelligent this movie is—it doesn’t insult the audience by relying solely on high-tech special effects and an over-abundance of violence. To be sure, such elements exist, but in the proper ratio to an actual PLOT, something that’s been lacking in mainstream sci-fi for too long. ALL the characters are 3-dimensional—the aliens have their own language (although how they communicate with humans verbally, understanding each other’s language, is never quite explained, but doesn’t hinder the storyline) and speak it at all times (with English subtitles), giving us insight into their culture and history by observation, not just by some human explaining it to us.

Some might be put off by the overtly-obvious and oft-used theme of “evil humans”, but if you’re familiar with the history of South Africa at all, you realize that in this case, it cannot be ignored. Most of the humans depicted in the film, whether they’ve interacted with the aliens or not, view them as inferior (the slang term for them is “prawns”). The hapless Wikus especially maintains his negative view of the aliens; as his change progresses, all that matters is reversing the process, to the detriment of those around him, human and alien alike.

There is much more to be said about District 9, but I will end here for fear of giving away much more of the excellent plot and of repeating the comments of other reviewers. I can say definitively though, that District 9 was worth the hype, and if the ending is to be believed (and I certainly hope so), I look forward to more from Blomkamp and Jackson in the future. Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language. 5/5

The Tuesday Top 10: Horror's Hottest Couples

This week's top 10 is pretty appropriate, considering that right now where I'm at, it's hotter than a snake's ass in a wagon rut (thank you, Good Morning Vietnam). Love and romance may not be the first things that come to mind when one thinks of horror, but the fact remains that the genre has given us some of the most unforgettable pairings in screen history. So join me, won't you, as I take a look at some of horror's most memorable lovers...

10. When a Wolf Loves a Woman...
An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Yes, he's an American stuck in a foreign land. Yes, he's recently been turned into a vicious lycanthrope. Yes, he's being visited by the mutilated corpse of his best friend. But David Kessler is also shacked up with super-hot nurse Alex Price and getting a steady diet of limey lovin'. Maybe it doesn't totally balance things out, but hey, you can't have everything.

9. My Demon Lover...
Hellraiser (1987)

What would a Clive Barker story be with no sex? And in Barker's directorial debut, it's Frank and his sister-in-law Julia that provide all the illicit goings-on. Folks, this is lust that lasts beyond the grave, as is shown when Julia is willing to murder poor sap after poor sap, simply for a chance at one more romp. We look at Frank and see a walking rump roast with eyes; she sees desire personified. Love truly is blind!

8. The Love That Dares not Speak Its Name
The Hunger (1983)

So taken by Dr. Sarah Roberts is the ancient vampire Miriam, that instead of using her help to reverse the aging process of her vampire lover John, she decides to replace him with her. And it's a beautiful coupling--until, of course, Sarah discovers what she's become, and is compelled by extreme hunger to kill her own boyfriend. Those types of things typically put strain on any relationship, undead or otherwise.

7. They Wanna Do Bad Things...
True Blood (2007-present)

If you're looking for that other vampire couple on here, you're on the wrong blog. Today's coolest canoodling nosferatu is Bill Compton, who alongside his mortal beloved Sookie Stackhouse charts a treacherous course through the sex-drenched wilderness that is Bon-Temps, Louisiana. Will Bill eventually turn Sookie into one of his own kind? Or will she will be swayed to join Team Eric? Stay tuned to everyone's favorite horror soap to find out...

6. This Ain't No Chick Flick
Cemetery Man (1994)
Before he became a go-to romantic comedy leading man for the remainder of the 1990s, Rupert Everett, as Francesco Dellamorte, got his groove on with the amazing Anna Falchi, known here only as She. Yes, knowing all we now know about Mr. Everett might make this love affair a bit unconvincing, but the smoldering scenes between these two go a long way toward the suspension of disbelief.

5. He Would Do Anything for Love
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Believed dead, the mute Dr. Anton Phibes exacts a methodical, bloody vengeance against the team of surgeons who failed to save the life of his beloved wife Victoria. Even the allure of his quite fetching assistant Vulnavia is not enough to sway the unflappable Phibes from his string of elaborate, musically themed homicides. Now that's dedication. Screw "Till death do us part"--for Phibes, that was just the beginning.

4. They're Altogether Ooky
The Addams Family (1964-66)
It was a tough call between them and Herman & Lily, but in the end, the unbridled lust of the Addamses won out over the Munsters' more bourgeois, domestic setup. At the center of the world's creepiest family, Gomez and Morticia actually have a healthier relationship than any of the supposedly "normal" couples they come into contact with. I guess that was the whole point, wasn't it? Gosh, I'm thick...

3. Beauty and the Beast
King Kong (1933)

Sure, one of them was a completely unwilling participant. And yes, they were completely physically incompatible. But hell, couldn't most of us say at least one of those things about our own parents? Kong and Fay Wray is one of cinema's most famous romantic entanglements--even if it did lead to the poor lovestruck lug's total downfall in the end. Welcome to the club, big guy.

2. Love Never Dies
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

For all it's flaws, Francis Ford Coppola's take on the Bram Stoker classic gave us what may be the most powerful love affair ever seen in a horror film. Yes, it's a completely apocryphal addition to what was supposed to be a "completely faithful" adaptation of Stoker's novel, but nevertheless, Gary Oldman's Dracula and Winona Ryder's Mina Harker have a strong onscreen chemistry that justifies itself.

1. The Monster Demands a Mate!
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

They're only on screen together for a matter of minutes, and she's completely revolted by the big guy, but none of that matters. Boris Karloff's Creature and Elsa Lanchester's Bride will always be horror filmdom's most memorable, iconic and indelible couple. It's a pairing that has fascinated all of us for generations, burned into our minds like some kind of Jungian archetype. Maybe it strikes a chord within us on some basic level, the need to be loved, and the pain of rejection.
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