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Thursday, November 24, 2011

This Year... There Will Be No Leftovers.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hump-Day Harangue: Did American Horror Story Really Go Too Far?

A few weeks ago, an editorial was run regarding American Horror Story on the very popular celebrity gossip blog Oh No They Didn't (yes, I already became annoyed due to the name of the site.) I immediately took interest, since FX's American Horror Story has held me as willing captive since it debuted the last month. You can read the article here, but the gist of it is that ONTD took AHS to task for the November 9 episode, in which a Columbine-style school shooting was depicted.

The reason for the taking-to-task was that apparently the show went "too far" in featuring such a starkly realistic and reality-based event. The author of the piece, who goes by the nome de blogue of Paris Dior Chanel, felt that it hit far too close to home, and was just too heavy for a show of this nature. Ms. Chanel believes that reality and horror really shouldn't mix, which immediately pegs her as someone who is just not very familiar with the horror genre. Particularly, she seems to find the show to be campy, silly fun which shouldn't get bogged down in real life:
American Horror Story is, despite all of its silliness and overly manufactured mood, an undeniably entertaining show. It's campy and creepy and doesn't seem to take itself too seriously, as it shouldn't. It's not the kind of horror thing that demands we imagine ourselves in the situation in order to be scared, which would require the show to exist at least somewhat within the bounds of the real... It's fun!
Now, I know "fun" horror. In fact, it's become my preference in recent years. I do not find American Horror Story to be "fun". Nor do I find it to be campy. In fact, I'd say one would have to be decidedly jaded and/or cynical to interpret the show in that fashion. Chanel seems to dismiss the show as disposable cotton candy entertainment.

In my estimation, American Horror Story is the best-written horror TV show to come down the pike in years. It's smart and thrillingly executed, filled with brilliant characterizations and real depth of feeling. It's the kind of horror show that is so well-written, in fact, that I think it would still work and be entertaining even if all the horror elements were removed. It is sinister, dark and challenging. True Blood is campy. AHS is not. Yes, Jessica Lange's Constance character does enter into camp territory in the grand tradition of former leading-women playing crazy old ladies in horror films (think Bette Davis and Piper Laurie), but that's about it. I think there may be some preconceived notions here on the author's part, perhaps owing to the fact that the show comes from the creators of Glee?

AHS is gritty, unflinching horror that delves into the human psyche and goes places we're not necessarily comfortable going. That's what it's supposed to do. It's not The Munsters. As such, it is will within the realm of acceptability for Ryan Murphy and company to incorporate real-life tragedy into the mix. As opposed to what Chanel asserts:
Was last night's opening scary? Of course. It was tense and awful. But it wasn't the right kind of scary for this dopey show. The chief (if perhaps initially unintentional on the creators' part) product of this show should be laughter... That's the kind of silly, ultimately empty scare that American Horror Story is best at. A school shooting is not that. That's far too real, far too much of a downer for a dumb Wednesday night.
Clearly, Chanel is viewing the show from a very different perspective from mine. So her opinion of the shooting storyline obviously draws from a very dismissive opinion of the show. If one considers AHS to be silly and dopey, than I suppose I can see how it would be out of sorts for truly disturbing material to be included. Yet I, and many others, find the show to be anything but silly, and its scares to certainly be anything but empty.

There's nothing dopey about botched abortions, mutilated babies, people burned alive and hit-and-run accidents. How about the home invasion and torture depicted in the opening of episode 2? Why did that fit Chanel's limited view of AHS, and not this? As for the scares, they come from places deep and dark; places like parents' fears over protecting their children, the anguish of secrets that won't stay hidden, and existential angst and insecurities common to us all. Empty? Campy fun? Are we watching the same show?

American Horror Story was well within its domain featuring a school shooting. Not only should Murphy and the gang not shy away from such subject matter, but I urge them to keep it coming. I can appreciate light-hearted horror, but that's not what AHS is. The show should remain true to itself, and keep challenging us. If I wanted silliness, I'd have gone to see the Abercrombie & Fitch vampires and werewolves at the movies last weekend.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Three Decades of David: The Movie That Changed Werewolf Movies (And Horror!)

In 1981, the werewolf movie was dead in the water. Done and done. A curious relic of horror history. And then, along came John Landis' landmark An American Werewolf in London, and the game was immediately changed forever.

So much change was brought into being as a result of this movie, in fact, that we often may take it for granted and not fully appreciate the amount of evolution it lent the ailing subgenre. Let's take a look at just a few of the ways that An American Werewolf in London transformed lyncanthrope cinema--and along the way, the entire horror category.


Prior to AWIL, the movie werewolf was a curious creature, who was actually not very much of a wolf at all. Rather, as he was best described in the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. classic, he was more of a "wolf man"--that is to say, a humanoid being with some of the more fearsome qualities of a wolf tacked on for horrific effect. This was not at all in line with the creature as described in traditional folklore, but it was necessitated by the level of makeup and special effects technology available in those early days of film.

It was a lot easier to take someone like Chaney or Henry Hull and add some lupine features--some fur and fangs, maybe a dog-like nose or ears. This is not to denigrate the work of such legends as Jack Pierce, but the fact remains that the werewolves depicted in movies prior to AWIL were much more man than wolf.

By the time we get to Landis' masterwork, and the contributions of that film's effects wizard, Rick Baker, we've got a whole different monster on our hands. For the first time, a werewolf was created that actually looked more like a monstrous wolf than a hairy dude in ripped clothes. The wolf we see here is not a true wolf like we would find in the natural world, but rather a demonic creature that is decidedly lupine in nature, but with a very cruelly human intellect behind its animalistic violence.

An American Werewolf in London stressed the wolf in werewolf, and set a trend that would be commonly followed in many other horror films. Sure, the "wolf man" template would still be replicated many times, but Baker demonstrated that it was possible for a human character to transform into a true wolf-like being.


Again, not to cast aspersions on the work of some of Hollywood's finest special effects geniuses, but what passed for a werewolf transformation on screen prior to An American Werewolf in London is very different from what audiences came to expect as a result of it. The time lapse photography work and other of Pierce's techniques seen in films like The Wolf Man and Werewolf of London were impressive for their time, and are still a hoot to watch, but remained within a boundary of what could be accomplished then--a boundary that would be shattered by Baker and company.

Starting with AWIL, the metamorphosis scene became something of a centerpiece of a werewolf film, the money shot that audiences waited for. It became a much more dramatic, intense, drawn out special effects extravaganza. David Naughton's transformation is an involved affair--a tense and nightmarish explosion of kinetic energy that is a far cry from Lon Chaney passively sitting in a chair as hair sprouted from his face.

It was also important to both Landis and Baker that the audience understand the pain involved in turning into a werewolf. Apparently, it hurts like hell to change into a monster--which would make sense, although it should be pointed out that the original folklore stresses the transformation as magical and not physical, thus no real pain. Still, thanks to the efforts of Landis and Baker, we get a sense of every cracking bone, popping sinew and contorting limb. The modern werewolf is thus a strange cross-breed of the enchanted and the biological.


From very early on, we understand that the characters in An American Werewolf London live in a world with all the same references we have. All the werewolf movies we know and love exist in this world; everyone knows the rules. References to movies such as The Wolf Man are made throughout the film, and in fact David explains how Larry Talbot had to be killed by his own father--someone who loved him--foreshadowing his own end at the hands of his girlfriend Alex.

A decade and a half before Scream, and nearly a quarter of a century before Shaun of the Dead, AWIL gave us post-modern irony in horror. We have characters who know the score--unlike characters from earlier horror flicks, who seem to live in a plastic bubble in which horror flicks don't exist. This self-referential style may be the single most influential contribution that An American Werewolf in London made to the history and development of the horror genre.

Not just one of the greatest horror movies ever made, An American Werewolf is smart horror. It turned its own subgenre and the entire genre on its head, and we've been feeling the effects ever since. It revived the werewolf for decades to come, giving it a whole new spin and a literal rebirth in the process. How fitting, that a concept based largely on the theme of transformation would be so profoundly transformed.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

VAULTCAST! Exclusive Interview w/Best-Selling Dark Fantasy & Paranormal Fiction Writer Leanna Renee Hieber!

About a year ago, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting one of the true rising stars of dark fantasy and paranormal fiction, novelist Leanna Renee Hieber, through a mutual friend, KT Grant of the superb blog Babbling About Books and More. Since then, I've wanted to have her as a guest in the Vaultcast, and I finally did so just a few weeks ago. The result is posted here for your enjoyment, and I apologize in advance for getting it posted so late. Alas, such is the dilemma of a hyper-busy Vault Keeper.

Known for her Strangely Beautiful series, which has already been optioned as a musical theatre production, Ms. Hieber is now launching a brand new series that is sure to soon be the talk of dark fantasy and gothic young adult fiction circles: Magic Most Foul. Steeped in a deep appreciation of history and literature, she is a genre writer who is refreshingly proud of being a genre writer, and it was a real treat speaking with her.

So listen in as we chat about her work, as well as various literary and cultural non-sequiturs along the way. You can either listen on the embedded player below, or proceed to the Vaultcast page and download it for listening at your leisure...

Pre-order signed copies of Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul!

Leanna Renee Hieber's website

Leanna Renee Hieber on Facebook

Leanna Renee Hieber on Twitter

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

David Hess 1936-2011

He was something of a renaissance man, whose career began in music, and though it never totally left that arena, also took him to some very different places. In the end, David Hess, who passed away suddenly of a heart attack last month at the age of 75, will be remembered by millions of movie fans worldwide as an icon of exploitation cinema. An odd fate for a guy who used to write songs for Elvis...

Hess was born to a Jewish family in New York City during the depths of the Depression. From a very early age, he had already found his first calling. Songwriting came naturally to him, and he also enjoyed performing, as well. At age 19, using the Anglicized name "David Hill", he actually took a stab at recording a brand-new song called "All Shook Up", which wound up a #1 hit the following year for Elvis Presley.

Unbowed, Hess took his songwriting talents to Shalimar Music, where he would be a successful composer through the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s. Ironically, he would compose a number of songs for Presley himself during this period, as well as the likes of Sal Mineo, Andy Williams, Pat Boone and others. Most notable was the novelty hit "Speedy Gonzalez," which Boone took to #6 in the U.S. and #2 in the U.K., selling six million copies worldwide. By the end of the 1960s, Hess had recorded two hit folk albums and found himself the head A&R man at Mercury Records.

Few could have predicted that during his tenure at Mercury, this successful songwriter, producer and recording artist would suddenly branch off into a very different area of show business. In 1972, he was asked to star in the debut film of a young director by the name of Wes Craven. That film was The Last House on the Left, which would become one of the most notorious pieces of exploitation cinema ever made.

It started out as a musical collaboration, as Hess was called upon to pen the soundtrack for the film. This he did, and songs like "The Road Leads to Nowhere" can be heard throughout the film, with Hess himself on vocals. But it would be as the brutal, sadistic, yet disturbingly charismatic Krug Stillo that Hess would make his greatest contribution to the movie, and become forever known to connoisseurs of the darker side of horror.

The leader of a band of vicious outlaws, Krug is one of the most terrifying psychopaths of '70s cinema, and that's really saying a lot. Hess is a natural in his first screen appearance, seeming to exude the perfect pitch of unadulterated sleaze and lowbrow humor that makes the character unforgettable. One wonders why it took so long for Hess to step in front of a camera. Last House is a flawed film, yet Hess' performance remains one of the best things about it.

Hess would continue to write music of all kinds for years to come, but his career was now set on a different path. The role of Krug opened the door to other lead parts in films like Pasquale Festa Campanile's Hitchhike and Ruggero Deodato's The House on the Edge of the Park. These were unrelentingly dark, grim pictures, in which Hess played unrelentingly dark, grim roles very reminiscent of Krug. Not to besmirch the man in death, but he seemed to have a knack for playing the consummate dirtbag, and it served him well in picture after picture.

He continued to act through the '80s, appearing in Craven's Swamp Thing as well as a slew of Italian exploitation flicks, and even tried his hand at directing. Both his acting and musical careers slowed down a bit in the 1990s, but in more recent years Hess had once again become very active. He recorded a few more albums and started popping up again in horror films like Zombie Nation and Smash Cut. Reminiscent of what he did on Last House on the Left, he even worked on some music tracks for a horror film, namely Eli Roth's 2003 breakout, Cabin Fever.

The iconic roles of his earlier years had gained Hess a whole legion of new, younger fans, many of whom he began connecting with at the conventions at which he started to become a fixture. His career was experiencing a bit of a revival, and ironically he had recently signed on to appear in the sequel to The House on the Edge of the Park, when he died on October 8.

A musician, an actor, a director, a producer--David Hess was all these things, but horror fans will remember him for playing some of the screen's most infamous lowlifes, particularly the implacable Krug Stillo. It's always the villains who get all the glory in horror, and Hess was one of the best.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Want to Know What I Thought of The Human Centipede II?

If the answer to the question posed by this post's title is "Yes," then I suggest you head over to KT Grant's excellent blog, Babbling About Books and More, where I've reviewed the controversial sequel by Tom Six. I reviewed the original one there last year, and so I was more than happy to oblige Ms. Grant with a follow-up review of the second one, especially after having interviewed Six and his star Laurence Harvey a few weeks back. Here's a sample:

A year and a half ago, I spoke out as a defender of a film I thought was being unfairly judged right out of the gate. That film was Tom Six’s The Human Centipede, and it was alternately being bashed by the mainstream for being too revolting, and by the hardcore horror freaks for being not revolting enough. The movie that I saw was a slick, well-made psychological horror flick being wrongly marketed as a gross-out piece of torture porn. I felt those dismissing it as too over-the-top simply hadn’t seen the picture, and was saddened by those who only seemed to be upset about not seeing enough ass-to-mouth contact.
For the rest of the review, check out Babbling About Books.
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