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Friday, June 22, 2012

The Many Faces of Hammer Horror

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Prometheus: A '70s Art Rock Album Cover Come to Life

It's been the most talked-about genre film event of the year. Ridley Scott returned to the scene in a big way this month with Prometheus, the sort-of prequel thingy to his 1979 magnum opus Alien. And since it's release, the web has been abuzz with everyone and their Mother (heh, get it?) trying to dissect, analyze and explain the movie. Well, I'm not here to do that today (although I do have no shortage of theories by any means...) No, rather, I decided to do something rather novel, which you may not have been seeing nearly as much of.

I'm going to review the movie.

Is Prometheus a great science fiction film? Yes, it is. It is also a pretty damn terrifying horror film, as well--two things its predecessor also was. Scott is in full form here, returning to play in the universe he first lured us into some 33 years ago. And while many were puzzled by the narrative detour he took, I for one really enjoyed how the film tangentially ties into the Alien mythos, while also being detached enough to completely stand on its own, as a very strong work of horror sci-fi.

I admired the guts it took for Ridley Scott to make an intelligent, thoughtful piece of sci-fi in the year 2012, when science fiction has come to be almost synonymous with action--such a far cry from its pre-Star Wars form. I also admired the guts it took for Scott--as well as screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof--to make a movie that doesn't feel the need to explain everything. And I don't just mean in a lazy way, as if they honestly don't know which way they're going (a la Lost or Heroes, for example), but rather, it's very clear that Scott and company know exactly how everything fits together--they're just leaving a lot of it for us to sort through. Which we've all been doing ad nauseum for the past few weeks.

Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?
And while it may be a bit cynical to craft a film which can only be explained by its inevitable sequels, I for one will be sure to be on line to see them. In many ways, Scott seems to have taken his lead from Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also a film in which humanity ventures into space to meet an alien intelligence instrumental in its own development, 2001 asked more questions than it had the definitive answers too. And much like Prometheus, it also looked great doing it. Plus, Guy Pearce as the elderly Weyland is a dead ringer for the aged Keir Dullea, and the resident android happens to be named David--the same name as Dullea's character in 2001.

Speaking of David, it is Michael Fassbender's enthralling portrayal of this character that steals the show. What would a movie in the Alien universe be without a captivating android, and just like Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen before him, Fassbender (looking astonishingly like a young Laurence Olivier) is the standout of a solid ensemble cast. At times sinister, at others sympathetic, yet strangely vain and Pinnocchio-like in his interest in human culture, David epitomizes the film itself: complex, with no easy answers.

Also worth noting is the lovely Noomi Rapace, who, in the role of Elizabeth Shaw, is a very worthy successor to Sigourney Weaver in the strong-female-lead department. Her "childbirth" scene is easily the most intense in the entire film. The always engaging Idris Elba is in top form as the captain of the Prometheus--the Tom Skerritt role, if you will, albeit far more decisive and effective a leader than Skerritt's Dallas ever was.

Also like 2001, Prometheus is a true feast for the senses. The production design work by Arthur Max, whose past credits include the likes of Gladiator and Seven, take the original designs of H.R. Giger that inspired the whole Alien mythos in the first place, and translate them effortlessly into this tangential narrative. Yet all the while, Giger's heavy influence is there. This is even true of the very humanoid Engineers (a.k.a. Space Jockeys) who are, as their xenomorph predecessors were, like Giger illustrations literally come to life. Amazing work here by costume designer Janty Yates and a crack makeup design team.

So is it scary? Does it work as a horror film? I can certainly say that it's the most frightening "Alien" film since the original, and it's no wonder why. Ridley Scott brings the same "haunted house in space" sensibility he brought to his 1979 masterpiece, and it pays off once again. The man is a master of generating thick atmosphere and an overall sense of weirdness, and his aim is further aided by the very talented Dariusz Wolski of Pirates of the Caribbean fame behind the camera.

Just as Alien did, so does Prometheus work well as both a horror and science fiction film--although this one might be tilted more in favor of sci-fi, whereas Alien was more horror-centric. One doesn't get much really intelligent sci-fi in theaters these days, and I usually jump on it when it's out there, much as I did with Moon some years ago. This is a film that isn't afraid to think big thoughts and ask big questions about the nature of man, the nature of life, and the nature of the universe. That's what great science fiction has always been about, going back to the classic days of pulps like Amazing Stories and Astounding. I enjoyed the way it delves into the whole alien astronaut concept of the origin of life on Earth. It's just as much Chariots of the Gods as it is 2001.

And for the record, I applaud the studio's decision to go with Lindelof's notion of taking the script in a different direction from being a pure Alien prequel. It works better for it. Let's face it, the xenomorphs have been overexposed thanks to those god-awful Alien/Predator flicks, and it was wise to put them into the background. By turning it into a completely different story that happens to take place in the Alien "universe", the filmmakers allowed the picture to work completely on its own terms. It tells its own story, and you absolutely do not need to have seen any of the Alien films to appreciate it on its own. The fact that it still contains teasing elements of prequel-ness is just acidic icing on the cake.

It's a very thought-provoking film--some might even say frustrating. But it is a great pleasure to watch, and represents genre filmmaking at its best, as far as I'm concerned. Does it leave you hanging in a big way? Yes. Does it provide you with nice, pat, satisfactory answers? No. But what else would you expect from the guy who gave us Blade Runner?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ray Bradbury 1920-2012

"Ray Bradbury wrote three great novels and three hundred great stories. One of the latter was called 'A Sound of Thunder.' The sound I hear today is the thunder of a giant's footsteps fading away. But the novels and stories remain, in all their resonance and strange beauty." - Stephen King
"The landscape of the world we live in would have been diminished if we had not had him in our world." - Neil Gaiman

If you're a genre fan, chances are you've been reading a lot of obituaries of Ray Bradbury over the past few days since last Tuesday, June 5, when the titan of science fiction literature was taken from us at the age of 91. There can be no doubt that he was one of, if not the single greatest creator of speculative fiction produced by the 20th century, and along with the likes of Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein, one of the unassailable legends of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. And he was the last of them, which made his passing that much more painful.

I'm not going to cover all the ground that's been covered by so many others in the past week. For the purposes of this blog, I'm going to talk a little bit about Bradbury's ventures into the realm of horror in particular. Although best known for his sci-fi, the author did indeed also have a great love for its more visceral, emotion-based cousin genre. In fact, it was from the works of Edgar Allan Poe that a very young Bradbury was first opened up to the power of genre fiction while nurturing his love of reading in the public library of Waukegan, Illinois. Yet another defining moment was his parents taking him to see Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a small child.

Like Victor Hugo, Bradbury would also come to have his works adapted for the screen in later years--both big and small. Some of the more prominent adaptations would be derived from his works of horror--most notably the 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was turned into one of the most chilling horror films of the 1980s. But his relationship with the movies began even earlier, in 1953, and was connected with his horror dalliances more than anything else.

A scene directly inspired by Bradbury's short story.
It was in that year that not one, but two Bradbury-related projects would be brought to the movies. Both could be termed sci-fi horror, tying back into the writer's area of true expertise. The first would his film treatment, "Atomic Monster", which producer William Alland developed into the 3-D classic, It Came from Outer Space. A mere three weeks later, Bradbury's dear friend Ray Harryhausen would make a name for himself with the release of the seminal giant monster flick, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, based loosely on Bradbury's 1951 short story, "The Fog Horn".

The Bradbury/Harryhausen friendship would become the stuff of genre legend (the two first met at the age of 18 at the home of none other than Forrest J. Ackerman), as would the sci-fi scribe's early association with comic strip icon Charles Addams. Before there was an Addams Family, Bradbury and Addams collaborated in the 1940s on a series of comically macabre stories revolving around a family called The Elliotts--collected in the 2001 volume, From the Dust Returned.

One of the EC issues featuring Bradbury's work.
In the early 1950s, more than 20 Bradbury stories would be adapted in the pages of EC Comics such as Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear. One short story in particular, "I Sing the Body Electric," would become the basis for the 100th episode of The Twilight Zone, aired in May 1962. He also directly wrote the screenplays for a total of five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Ray Bradbury was a shining light in the firmament of sci-fi, fantasy and horror. He was one of the last living connections to a truly amazing era in speculative fiction, and as The New York Times observed, may have been the one author most responsible for bringing science fiction into the mainstream. A giant of imaginative literature, he will be missed by fans of horror who have come to love and be inspired by his many fascinating forays into our genre.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Hump-Day Harangue: The Truth About the Zombie Apocalypse

This is a post I feel I shouldn’t have to write, and it’s almost embarrassing to address. It’s probably going to make me a tad unpopular with some readers, or perhaps it might make me sound a little arrogant—but so be it. I’ve been sitting on the sidelines for a while, and it’s time to make up for lost time.

By now, we’ve all been beaten over the head with the stores of “real-life zombies” and all sorts of “zombie-like” attacks being reported in the news. There was the lunatic in Miami who spent 20 minutes chewing someone’s face off. Then there was the other lunatic in New Jersey who ripped his own guts out and threw them at cops who were pursuing him. Plus the media poring through police blotters to dig up anything that sounds like a pattern from the last year, trying to make everyone panic and think that some kind of actual zombie uprising is happening. It’s what they love to do, and they do it well.

Folks, there are two elements to the harangue that I’m diving into today. My first thesis:

If You Really Think a Zombie Apocalypse Is Going to Happen, You’re an Idiot

The so-called "Miami Zombie" (left) and his victim.
 The scariest thing to me about this whole zombie conspiracy thing in the news is not any of the actual stories, but the way some people have really bought into the hysteria hook, line and sinker. Again, it almost embarrasses me to have to address, since I think that 99% of rational people realize that the concept of flesh-eating zombies is fictional and is not possible in the real world. Nevertheless, there is a contingent of mental midgets out there who really do believe that it’s happening. I know; I come across them every day.

I think these are the same people who believe Elvis is still alive, or that people are visited by the Virgin Mary in their bowl of Frosted Flakes. They’re the ones who think the world is going to end this autumn because the Mayans said so. The same Mayans who believed they needed to kill someone every day to make sure the sun would come up in the morning—forgive me if I find their scientific findings suspect. I’m living in Bridgeport these days, and no one said it better than that city’s patron saint P.T. Barnum—There’s a sucker born every minute, and two to take him.

I really think we’re living in a culture in which many people have lost touch with the boundary between entertainment and reality. These are the people who will quote chapter and verse about all the “rules” of zombie biology and behavior, as if they exist in some textbook somewhere, and weren’t merely invented by screenwriters to serve their narrative needs. What person could believe that an impossible supernatural scenario invented for a movie could somehow magically become real? Answer: A whole lot of them.

Not real.
Here’s the bottom line, and I apologize to all those without missing chromosomes who don’t need this explained to them: The modern movie zombie was created in the minds of George Romero and John Russo. It was later embellished by other filmmakers like Dan O’Bannon, Lucio Fulci and Edgar Wright. It is not based on anything that exists in the real world. It is fiction. A serious disconnect in logical thinking--or a lack of understanding of the creative process--has to exist  in the mind of anyone who would actually believe that the creation of someone’s imagination could just come into being—as if seeing it in a movie somehow makes it exist. It startles me how much people will simply decide something is real, just because they really want it to be real, and for no other reason. I think this is how organized religions get started.

If only this were true! Imagine if our favorite film genres could just spontaneously cross over into the real world? I love The Warriors—but I do not believe that New York may be overrun by silly, themed gangs of face-painted thugs just because that movie exists. I love kaiju—but I don’t entertain the notion that Japan will be attacked by giant monsters, simply because some guys made some movies in which it was.

My girl.
Look, if anyone knows about the delusional zombie fixation, it’s me. My girlfriend is a high-profile zombie personality, for crying out loud! Captain Cruella has many fans, most of whom are sane individuals (OK, maybe I’m being a little kind)… But there’s not a day that goes by that she doesn’t take note of the fact that there seem to be people out there who really believe she is a zombie. Who ask her legit questions about what it’s like to be one of the undead, without seeming to understand that she is a flesh-and-blood human being playing a character (sorry to blow up your spot, babe!) This is the kind of thinking that we’re dealing with here.

The sad truth? These are not zombies committing these crimes. These are just ordinary, run of the mill, garden variety wackos. And the further truth is that this stuff happens all the time—and that real people are far more terrifying than any fictitious beasties conjured up in the movies. There is nothing more to it than that, despite how ardently some delusional people may believe otherwise. Which brings me to my second point…

If You Think These Stories Are Funny, You’re a Creep

Alexander Kinyua, a Maryland college student
who apparently ate his roommate.
I think this may separate me from a great many of my fellow horror freaks, and that saddens me. I’m disappointed in a lot of you. See, I’ve talked about this before, but I’m not one of those horror fans who thinks that John Wayne Gacy is awesome, and fixates on real-life atrocities with morbid glee. I gravitate toward horror for precisely the opposite reason—to escape the far worse horrors of the real world. I like my horror fun, and these days I try not to take it too seriously. I don’t find real life horrors to be cool or badass.

Call me na├»ve, but I never imagined things would get so bad that news of murder and mutilation in the news would be met with ironic, amused commentary and downright joyful laughter from intelligent people. I’m all for making fun of things, but I’m a firm believer in the old axiom that comedy=tragedy+time. The key word there is “time”. Our culture has apparently become so desensitized that many people have no qualms about simply jumping on these “zombie” news stories and having a jokey field day.

Horror fans in particular are guilty of this. Is it the way we glut ourselves with uber-violent entertainment that enables us to no longer register pity or revulsion at these stories? I’m not advocating censoring or curtailing anyone’s entertainment, as I partake in much of it myself. But I think some of us need to sit down and realize that these are real human beings whose tragedies we are deriving so much entertainment from. These are not characters in a Friday the 13th movie, getting sliced and diced by Jason as we cheer him on. These are real people—could be someone’s parent, child, sibling, whatever. Could be you.

Do you think Ronald Poppo, the homeless man lying in a hospital bed in Miami right now, will find it funny or ironic when he awakes to discover that much of his face has been torn off? He will have to live with that for the rest of his life. Is the news of a man hurling his own internal organs at the police a “cool story” because it sounds like something that would happen in a horror movie—or is it rather something that we should find profoundly disturbing? In a humane society, stories of people attacking babies should not provoke snarky chortles. No matter how much these things may resemble scenes from horror movies, let’s not get so immersed in our entertainment culture that we forget the difference.

In short, Vault dwellers--flesh-eating undead zombies are not real. Never have been, never will be. What is real, however, is the fact that some people have suffered and witnessed some unspeakable violence. Let’s try to focus on reality, remember our humanity, and save our horror fantasies for the movies, where nobody really gets hurt.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Trailer Trash! 1970s Edition...

Friday, June 1, 2012

Random Ramblings from the Vault...

  • So yes, it's been a while. The Vault of Horror has been on a bit of a short sabbatical. But that's over now. Partly, this was due to the mysterious implosion of the VoH's Facebook page, the truth of which we may never learn. Oh, well--life goes on, and I've built a BRAND NEW Vault of Horror Facebook page. So if you were a fan of the old one (or even if you weren't), please head over there and "like" it right now!
  • Memorial Day weekend... barbecues, John Wayne, apple pie and all that good stuff. But for horror fans, we cannot forget the insane trifecta of birthdays that occur each year as well. For on that blessed day, May 27, three icons of our genre celebrate the anniversaries of their birth (well, the two living ones do, anyway.) In case you never knew, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Linnea Quigley all share the same birthday (albeit in different years, naturally). One wonders what the significance of that day might be. One also wonders what would've happened if they had switched some of their roles. I personally would've loved to see Mr. Price take on Linnea's graveyard dance from Return of the Living Dead...
  • Can I just say that a lot has happened in my self-imposed exile? I've seen a whole bunch of movies, and done something I haven't done in years--kept my opinions to myself. That's all going to change now, of course. For starters, I happened to see the Ghost Rider sequel, and I must admit, in spite of Nic Cage being the worst actor alive, it was WAY better than I ever expected it to be. Far better than the original, in fact. Now, if only someone would reboot the Man-Thing franchise, I'd be in horror comics fan heaven.
  • Alright, I guess I should comment on all this supposed "zombie-like" activity happening everywhere. First a naked guy spends 18 minutes chewing another person's face off, and then some maniac rips out his own guts and throws them at the cops. Plus, the media has delighted in scouring the police blotters for similar stories so they can create some kind of silly conspiracy mania. The sad thing is, these things probably happen all the time, we just don't really hear about them. People--regular, boring ordinary human beings--are for more horrifying and potentially evil than any made-up creatures out of scary movies. And that's all this is. But if you needed me to tell you that, then I feel for you, buddy. Go stand in the shallow end of the gene pool--you're taking up valuable space.
  • The League of Tana Tea Drinkers, a fine association of horror bloggers of which I'm a founding member, now has a kickass presence on Facebook, so I figured I'd pass it along. If you're interested in checking out some of the greatest horror blogs out there, it's a great place to catch it all in one place.
  • I find myself living right down the street from a movie theater these days (two, actually), and there's not a night that goes by that I'm not tempted to walk down there, especially when there's a decent horror flick showing. I recently missed catching The Raven, and now The Chernobyl Diaries is calling my name...
  • I am the proud father of a 10-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy. The girl's favorite horror film is Drag Me to Hell, and the boy's favorite horror film is The Shining. And that's what happens when your Dad runs The Vault of Horror.
  • Prometheus is now mere days away... For my money, the horror event of the year. Granted, I haven't even seen it yet, but you have Ridley Scott returning to the Alien "universe"... and to explain the origin of the Space Jockey, no less. The Captain and I will be there with proverbial bells on. Care to join us?
  • Speaking of the Captain and I, we've got some big things on the horizon. Firstly, there is the 3rd annual Village Invasion, which looks to be bigger and badder than ever thanks to an exciting partnership with one Neil Smoller, whose Village Apothecary is now officially sponsoring the event. Check Cruella's Crypt for more info on that.
  • We've also got the first-ever Zombie Cruise shaping up for January! We're working with a major cruise line to make this happen, and once we've got all the details firmed up, we'll be passing the info along. But you can expect movies, zombie swag, and of course what would a Zombie Cruise be without a zombie crawl on deck?
  • In short, thanks to everyone who bore with me through this little break. Life has gotten a lot busier, and I can't guarantee I'll always be able to post as often as I used to in the old days. But you can rest assured that The Vault of Horror is back. And I'll keep giving you all I've got, Vault dwellers, as long as you keep coming back for more.
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