Monday, November 25, 2013

Monster #20—Giant Worms

So, last week's post about giant centipedes got me to thinking about what happens when you cut off those 100 legs. You end up with a worm. And as if  it's those legs that make them, for whatever reason, not compelling monsters for stories, I guess that would explain why when you think about giant worms, there's all SORTS of stories and movies out there! It's certainly easier to do a giant worm in a movie; they're easy to build, after all!

And I'll get it out of the way right here. Although I do like the sandworms from Dune... I'm not gonna say anything more about them here, because overall, I really don't care for Dune.


Giant Worms are even in the same movie I mentioned last week—Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong. And elsewhere as well. Heck... I guess I don't have much more to say about giant worms, but the list below is pretty big nonetheless...

Recommended Viewing:
Recommended Reading:

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Book Review—Doctor Sleep

I've been reading Stephen King for about 30 years. Started reading him at what a lot of folks might say is too young... but my parents, fortunately, were not among them, and they had no problem with me reading Cujo and  Pet Semetery at the age of 10 or so. The fact that my Grandma gave me these books to read probably helped.

Anyway, as the world knows, Stephen King's written a bazillion books. And when you write that many, some will be brilliant and some will be terrible. His latest, Doctor Sleep, isn't brilliant (although it certainly has a few moments of it at the start and at the end), but it's consistently good. It's less concerned with horror than it is with character, and since character is where King is the best, that's fine with me. It's also interesting that, while there is a large cast of villains in the book (a band of road-wandering child-killing vampires who drink psychic powers, not blood) who are pretty reprehensible (what with the child killing and all that)... you kinda end up feeling a little sorry for them. In fact, the villains of Doctor Sleep are strangely out of their league against our protagonists, which is an unusual way to tell a story about child-killing mind-drinking vampires.

OH! It's a sequel to The Shining also. One of the scariest books King's written, and one of the best, perhaps THE best book about a haunted house I've read—it's only competition would be Nazareth Hill or The Haunting of Hill House. As he mentions in is afterword, Stephen King was a very different person when he wrote The Shining, and it shows. And not in a bad way! But... I love The Shining, and it's hard to top it. King doesn't try to top it—Doctor Sleep tells a VERY different story that just happens to be about Danny Torrence, the same little boy, now all grown up, who once saw something very bad in the Overlook Hotel.

Doctor Sleep...
  • ... needed only 7 or so pages to give me the chills. It never really equals the dread of those first few pages... but then again, it's not really trying to. The dread is a cool carry over from The Shining to ease you out of that book's world and into the world of Doctor Sleep.
  • ... will confuse folks who only know the Kubrick version of The Shining. King's version is pretty different.
  • ... makes me eager to see King do squeals to other novels. Pet Semetery, in particular.
Grade: B+

Movie Review—The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Sometimes, things that are wildly popular are actually pretty good. I went into The Hunger Games a few years ago not expecting much—not expecting anything but a tame PG-13 sanitized version of a similar movie, Battle Royale. What I got was much more than that—the central concept of Battle Royale—"Put a bunch of kids out in the wild and then film them killing each other," is obviously a key point of inspiration for The Hunger Games... but that's not all The Hunger Games is about. The competition is about 1/2 of the movie—with the setup being just as important to the evolving mythos of the world. In Catching Fire, that mythos expands, and whereas the first part was a pretty self-contained movie, this one is anything but. It's an over two-hour-long preamble for the REAL movie that's yet to come—an epic saga of revolution against an overwhelming government. And I'm really looking forward to seeing that movie. Quite a lot.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has great actors, a compelling script, some impressive special effects, and all the rest that makes a great movie, but as entertaining as it is... it really isn't a full movie. It's the first act of a three act arc, and if the next two movies fall flat, then all the work put in to this one will have been wasted. I certainly hope they don't mess up what they've set up, because it's a compelling storyline. Don't go in to see it expecting resolutions is all I'm saying!
So... yeah, went to the bathroom at what I foolishly took to be a slow part, and when I returned... MONKEYS!
 The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is...
  • ... hopefully going to make the studio plenty of money so they don't do something stupid like pull the plug on the Mockingjay movies!
  • ... doing just fine in the moneymaking category, as a quick check online confirms. Whew!
  • ... has a bad-ass heroine in it who isn't invulnerable or superhuman or even all that particularly heroic. YET.
  • ... also has some pretty cool archery scenes!
  • ... feels a little too close to predicting the future now and then.
  • ... was almost directed by David Cronenberg. THAT would have been incredible! I'd love to see what he can do with an enormous budget some day!
Grade: A–

Movie Review—All Is Lost

My dad always had a low opinion of amusement park rides. He is fond of saying things like, "Why would I pay to ride around on a roller coaster when I can go out on the ocean and do it for real?" I've been out on the ocean on pretty rough days—not as rough as some of the days he's seen, but rough enough to get what he's talking about. With a roller coaster, the thrills are manufactured, and there's the notion that as frightening as they might be, they're designed to thrill and not hurt. The ocean doesn't have that psychological safety net. It doesn't want to kill you or save you or hurt you. It just is what it is, and when humans get in its path, they must respect it or they will suffer. And even respect isn't always enough.

All Is Lost gets this idea across better than any movie I've seen. This movie is already something of a miracle and a wonder, in that it's got barely any dialogue in it, because it's only got one actor in the entire thing. The movie starts with Robert Redford's character waking on his sailboat somewhere in the Indian Ocean with water rushing into his cabin–his boat struck a container that fell off a ship, and now there's a hole at the waterline. The captain doesn't panic or freak out—he knows that won't solve the problem. He just goes to work, doing his best to fix the situation. A situation that spirals out of control despite the fact that he increasingly does every thing he can do to survive.

Because the ocean doesn't care if you survive or not.
Believe it or not... it gets worse.

All Is Lost ...
  • ... brought back memories of the smell of fiberglass resin.
  • ... is PG-13 pretty much entirely for one of the most despair-fueled uses of the f-bomb I've seen.
  • ... confirms my suspicions of how harrowing it would be to be in a storm in a sailboat where the swells are bigger than your boat.
  • ... is one of the best movies of 2013.
Grade: A+

Movie Review—Grabbers

Grabbers belongs to the same category of horror-comedy as Tremors—a small town beset upon by a strange sort of weird monster that has a quirky sense of humor about all that's going on. Unlike Tremors, though, Grabbers is pretty much a mediocre movie in every way that Tremors was exceptional, from the acting to the story to the creature design to the special effects (more on that later) to the humor. Especially the humor. There were a few funny parts in Grabbers, but nothing on par with Earl's elephant gun or the aftermath of blowing up a Graboid or Kevin Bacon's discovery of the "ass end." In fact, even though I haven't seen Tremors in many, many years, the fact that I can  recall lots of funny scenes from it and can't recall any specific ones that were that funny from Grabbers (which I saw just a week ago) is pretty damning.

And special effects. The fact that CGI is so affordable these days is great. There are a lot of low-budget movies out there that make great use of CGI, such as Monsters or Lovely Molly, but it's SO easy to overstep the capability of your effects with CGI it seems. At least with practical effects, even if it's fake looking, the actors are still interacting with something, and that really helps to sell the scene. The effects in Grabbers were actually quite good, but they weren't themselves enough to elevate the movie out of mediocrity.

Which is too bad, because the monster itself is pretty cool. Too bad they went with a boring "space alien" source and didn't just embrace the Lovecraftian vibe full on!
Throw it back! Throw it back!

Grabbers is...
  • ... a little too enamored with its central idea of "the aliens drink blood and alcohol is poison to them, so being drunk saves us!"
  • ... disapointingly mediocre, as far as monster movies go.
  • ... filled with beautiful scenery—the shots of Ireland's coastlines were enough to make me want to visit! Preferably when tentacle monsters aren't flopping around!
Grade: C+

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Monster #19—Giant Centipedes

So this time, I'm choosing a monster that's obscure enough that I can't think of ANY books or stories that have been written about it, and can think of only one movie they've appeared in. Which is something of a shame, really, because look at that thing to the left! If that's not a monster, what is? So what if that one's only a few inches long... with all those legs, the poisonous bite, and that freaky looking face, and that bright color (remember... bright colors is one of the ways nature says "DON'T TOUCH!"), how could we have gone so long without a giant centipede attacking some city?

Growing up... I did a fair amount of what my friend called "board snuffing." To board snuff, you just have to find an old board out in the yard or woods, then just lift it up and examine (snuff) around the contents revealed. It doesn't have to be a board, of course; we had stacks of concrete blocks out behind our house that worked well also (including having the ability to now and then crush fingers). In any event, once you've got the board up, there were entire ecosystems to examine. And if you were REALLY lucky, an alligator lizard or rubber boa or something equally and unexpectedly large and awesome. But you also had to be careful, since there were other things lurking under the boards. Poisonous things. I've found black widow spiders, scorpions, trap-door spiders, and more while board snuffing. There were supposedly rattlesnakes living where I grew up, but I was both fortunate and unlucky enough to never find any of them.

And of course I found centipedes. Bright yellow and orange ones. They were EASILY the most common of the significantly poison, scary critters I found. I've never been bitten by one, not for lack of tempting fate, but something that brightly colored has to pack a punch. One day, I found a particularly large centipede, and as was my wont whenever I found something of note while board snuffing, I caught it and put it in a jar to keep in my room as a decoration and creepy "pet" for a few days before releasing it back into the wild. My friend (the same one who invented the phrase "board snuffing" in the first place) was spending the night over that day, and when I woke up, I found the jar that had contained the centipede was EMPTY. The monster was in the house! In my room! I kinda freaked out. My friend claimed he had let it out in the night, and to this day I'm not sure if he was joking or actually did. I do know that several months later, after moving some furniture around in my room, I found the giant quite dead centipede against a floorboard under the bed...
AAAAHHH! Do not want!

Anyway. Maybe I should take my centipede life experiences and take care of the glaring omission in fiction when it comes to giant versions of these critters. As mentioned above, I couldn't think of any books where they've appeared, and the only movie? Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong, which actually has a pretty harrowing sequence involving some big centipedes.

And no... The Human Centipede doesn't count. That's a different thing altogether.

Recommended  Viewing

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Movie Review—Maniac

It's one thing to cast Elijah Wood, best known of course for his portrayal of Frodo Baggins, as a stone-cold evil maniac of a serial killer. This movie, aptly titled Maniac, goes one step further. Nearly the entire movie is filmed from the point of view of the killer as he stalks his victims one by one to collect their scalps for his collection of mannequins in an attempt to replace the loss of his horrific and horrible but recently-deceased mother. There's some really impressive camera work here, to be sure, especially in the shots where you see direct-on views of the killer's reflections in mirrors and windows and the like, and the few points where the camera pans away from the killer's POV are really effective in giving you a moment to observe what's going on in a more standard way. They're like gasps for air, in a way, these opportunities to step out of a killer's body, especially since these tend to occur at the more violent or creepy points in the movie.

There's not an awful lot in the way of plot in this movie—it's pretty much all about the killer's methodical collection of victims while he tries to juggle a growing for-real relationship with a woman who wants to use his mannequins for her photography (the ones he restores, not the ones he keeps secret in his bedroom with scalps stapled to their heads). Of course, as one might expect, keeping your serial killing separate from your love life is a recipe for disaster, and eventually these two worlds collide in a relatively spectacular chase sequence. The two main characters—the serial killer and his would-be girlfriend—are relatively interesting, and the special effects are realistic and horrific and well done, but in the end it's the unique POV of the camerawork that is Maniac's real star.
Lord of the Rings would have been a very different movie had this been Frodo...

Maniac is ...
  • ... yet another excellent example of how creepy mannequins are.
  • ... a remake, but I've not seen the original so I can't say if this is better or worse.
  • ... proves that as violent as a movie can be, filming the violence from the POV of the perpetrator makes it all the more disturbing. It's pretty hard to watch at times.
  • ... has a lengthy scene that features the song "Good-Bye Horses," that, much like its use in The Silence of the Lambs, does an unsettling job of making an already creepy scene even more so.
  • ... will change how you see Elijah Wood as an actor... he pulls off the serial killer really, really well!
Grade: B+

Monday, November 11, 2013

Movie Review—Thor: The Dark World

So. Thor: The Dark World is a really well-made movie, with incredible special effects, really cool characters, some fun dialog, and the way it fits into the expanding cinematic Marvel universe is really cool.

It's also the first of the various Marvel comic book movies where I started feeling like things were starting to feel a bit repetitive. I mean... how many times can the world and/or universe ALMOST get destroyed only to be saved at the last minute by a superhero before the bad guys give up? Especially since this time, the bad guys just seem like a downgrade in menace from all that's come before.

I guess what I'm saying is that I'm eager to see some of these superheros get into a smaller plot. Something that allows for character growth rather than just excuses for special effects. And know what else? I'm kinda ready for there to be a big-budget superhero movie about a non-white guy superhero. They exist. I know they do. And movies about them have been made before. I just want to see one done that is done to the level of quality of many of Marvel's latest movies.
Enough with Thor. Let's get a Sif movie! Hey... they could show it at SIFF!

Thor: The Dark World ...
  • ... reminds me of how important it is for a superhero movie to have a really awesome and memorable soundtrack. DC's comic book movies seem to get this. Why doesn't Marvel?
  • ... has a DELIGHTFUL cameo by Captain America.
  • ... left the Asian guy out of the movie for no real reason, which was disappointing.
  • ... should have given Ray Stevenson more to do.
  • ... made me want to see Rene Russo in more swordfighting scenes!
Grade: B

Movie Review—Sound of My Voice

So, Netflix seems to be pretty good at guessing what sorts of movies I'll like, and so I'm always delighted to see it suggest a movie I haven't heard of before. All I knew about Sound of My Voice going in was that it had something to do with a couple who decided to infiltrate a cult in order to get proof that said cult was up to no good. Of course... things don't quite go as planned, and that's all I'm going to say about this movie so as to not spoil the surprise! Actually, since the trailer and the fact that I tagged this post as "science fiction" is already a spoiler, I'll say this much. The leader of the cult the investigators infiltrate claims to be from the future. And that's the rub. How do you PROVE you're from the future if you really are? Or how do you make people BELIEVE you're from the future if you really aren't? And... why would you do either?

The movie is not particularly gory or violent or even profanity-filled... but it IS pretty dang thought provoking and intriguing!
What's going on here? Has something to do with apples. I'm not gonna spoil it!

Sound of My Voice...
  • ... is a quiet, slow-moving movie that really draws you in by expanding what's going on in steps that seem tiny at first but are really huge leaps.
  • ... makes you think that something is going on, then reverses things to make you think something else is going on, then goes back to what you thought was going on, again and again. 
  • ... feels like the tip of the iceberg; it's supposedly the first in a trilogy. Here's hoping the next two get made!
Grade: A–

Movie Review—Kon-Tiki

I've felt that the story of the Kon-Tiki would make a great movie for a long time. And while this movie was not great... it was still pretty good. The story of Thor Heyerdal and the journey he and his crew made across the Pacific Ocean is pretty awesome, one fraught with peril and adventure and beauty. It's not one that needs to be "amped up," and had this been a full-on Hollywood-style production, I'm sure it would have had gunfights and car chases.

It wasn't a Hollywood-style production, but the scenes I'd been most interested in seeing were either "actioned up" or cut altogether, and some scenes that didn't exist at all were put in there just to liven up the pace. That, and some shots of sharks and stuff not really behaving the way sharks behave were a bit unfortunate.

Still a well-made and entertaining movie. Just didn't manage to meet the expectations I'd built up for the movie over the past, oh, three decades or so. I'm not sure anything could, though.
Awww! Poor little guy got left on the cutting room floor! Just because he's ugly!

Kon-Tiki is...
  • ... missing the scene where the snake mackerel jumps in bed with one of the crew.
  • ... has the scene with the whale shark (it kinda HAD to) but it was over way too quickly.
  • ... did an incredible job with realizing the world; great cinematography and for the most part great special effects.
  • ... made me want to re-read Thor's book to remind myself of which parts the movie made up and which parts really happened.
  • ... didn't spend long enough time at sea.
  • ... has a shot that goes from the surface of the ocean, up into orbit around the earth, then back down to the sea that is really rather awesome.
Grade: B+

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Movie Review—Lord of Tears

So, I've helped fund 3 movies so far on Kickstarter. I'll get to reviews of the first two once they're out, but it IS kind of amusing that the one I helped fund most recently is the first one that I've seen. Now, Lord of Tears had a leg up on the others since it was already done and the Kickstarter campaign was mostly to secure distribution and marketing for the movie, but still.

So! As you can see from the pictures, Lord of Tears is about the owlman. But there's quite a bit more going on here than that, and despite how creepy the owlman looks... by the time the movie's over, you realize that it wasn't really about the owlman at all. The movie itself has a pretty simple plot, and it's not going to impress with a huge cast, and the monster doesn't do a lot more than stand around and watch... but as it turns out, when you've got such an incredibly haunting and scenic location to shoot in like the highlands of Scotland, things like plot and cast and super-dynamic monsters aren't all that necessary. Especially when you couple that with an incredibly dream-like style of shooting and then edit the movie so that the whole thing increasingly feels like a strange nightmare.

There's some cool twists to the story as well, one of which I saw coming early (and enjoyed nonetheless) and one of which kinda surprised me in a good way. I'll be somewhat vague about those. The movie's plot, as I mentioned, is pretty simple. A man inherits a house after his mother's suicide—but in her will, she says words to the effect of, "Something at that house drove you crazy and made you almost drown yourself—don't go back there today!"

And so, of course, he goes back there to find out, if he can, what caused him to repress a year or so of memories as a child. Because after that setup, what self-respecting horror movie character WOULDN'T go? (To be fair, the character comments on this in the movie, noting, more or less, "Why would Mom tell me to stay away like that, when she should know a warning like that would only intrigue me all the more?") Of course, once he arrives, he starts having strange dreams and seeing visions of a frightening creature watching him from the the surrounding hills and woods—was an encounter with the owlman what terrified him so as a child?

Or was it something far worse?
A very good reason to turn around and find your way down a different, less horror-filled hallway...

Lord of Tears ...
  • ... is relatively slow paced and deliberate in getting where it wants to go, but it's never once boring to look at. The movie made me want to go visit Scotland!
  • ... gets a lot of mileage out of the owlman suit. It doesn't need to do much but stand there to send chills up the spine, and the scenes where you don't realize immediately that the owlman is in there, watching you, blending in to the background, are pretty effective. Makes you start imagining owlmen in scenes where there aren't any.
  • ... feels like being trapped in a nightmare. Not every part of it makes logical sense, and a fair amount of the imagery  is there only for symbolism and because it just looks creepy.
  • ... uses a large number of public-domain or free sound effects, many of which I've heard a LOT in video games. That's always distracting to me, since those sound effects tend to be overheard a LOT in video games over and over... kinda took me out of the nightmare-induced fugue the movie was putting me in now and then.
  • ... arrived in the best packaging ever—wrapped in black crepe paper, with an owl feather affixed to the front and no other indication as to what was inside. Owlman doesn't need to sign his name to leave his mark!
  • ... incorporates themes of Slenderman and the tones of Lovecraft. No wonder it felt like a nightmare!
  • ... is a refreshing throwback to older British horror movies where mood and tone rule all. Fittingly, the director dedicated the movie to Christopher Lee.
Grade: A–

Monster #17—Owlman

The concept of humans with animal heads is one of the classic monster tropes. Want a quick and easy way to make a person scary and strange? Give them a wolf head or a tiger head or a snake head. Or, as it turns out, an owl head.

The Owlman isn't a monster I'd heard much about until earlier this year, when a Kickstarter project caught my attention—a movie called Lord of Tears was seeking some money to secure some additional funding for last minute additions and reshoots, but primarily so they could pay for distribution of the already pretty-much-complete movie. After seeing Absentia come to life thanks to Kickstarter, I'd been keeping an eye out for other interesting and promising horror movies to help fund, so I probably would have kicked in some cash for Lord of Tears even if the movie hadn't yet started filming.

Now, while the Owlman of the movie was a very specific monster with a very specific tie to history, the "real" Owlman is a figure that haunts the area around Mawnan, Cornwall. He hasn't been sighted all that often, which may be why I've not heard about him in my relatively extensive monster researching lore. Variously explained as a manifestation of energy from prehistoric ley lines to sightings of rare eagles or other birds, I think my favorite explanation remains that he's a sinister demigod from antiquity. Which is, as you'll see in my next post, what the movie went with!

Recommended Viewing:

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Monster #16—Alp

As a kid, I used to have night terrors. These aren't just nightmares. These are visions of such unrelenting horror as you sleep that you simply can't do anything but shriek and scream. I can hardly imagine what it's like for a parent to have to deal with a child who has night terrors. I get them still now and then today, particularly when I'm overstressed... the best way to handle them is to get up, walk around, grab some water, and take 10 minutes or so to reinforce the fact that you're fine, you're in your home, you're safe.

Night terrors have tormented us as a race from the START of the race. But they aren't the most frightening form of nightmare to me. The most frightening would probably be what's called "sleep paralysis." I've never suffered from this type of nightmare, but plenty of people have... it's the type of dream where you wake up, hallucinate, and simply can't move... and all that comes with an overwhelming feeling of terror and dread. It's from experiences like these that all manner of notorious legends and myths have evolved, from the succubus and incubus on up to the more contemporary aliens who supposedly abduct folks to perform experiments.

One such creature in this category is the alp—a creature from German mythology similar in some ways to a vampire, in others to a ghost, and in still more to an incubus (although the legends generally don't include a sexual element in the alp's case).

Yet, if I've never had sleep paralysis before... why am I suddenly all intrigued by alps? Well, I just finished playing a VERY good video game earlier today—a tense and stressful thing called Outlast. In the game, you play a reporter who gets a tip that there are strange goings on at an old asylum, and so you head up there one night to investigate, armed only with your video camera. This camera is also your only way to navigate the darkest parts of the asylum, by letting you use the night-vision mode to do so. Of course... there are ALL SORTS of horrific things going on in the asylum for you to run from and hide from; crazy people, deranged doctors, naked deranged orderlies, deformed lunatics, mutants... and as the game progresses, something called a "walrider." Which is, of course, another name for the alp.

The game's a piece of work. Made me jump back from the computer several times. Highly recommended. Just don't play it late at night, especially if you're prone to the terrors! Check out the gameplay footage/trailer below... IF YOU DARE!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Movie Review—The Last Days on Mars

Back in Elementary School I checked a book out of the school library. This book was an anthology of short stories called Creepies, Creepies, Creepies. It ended up being one of the most important books I've ever read, for in the pages of this formative anthology I would read, for the first time, stories by Bram Stoker, William Hope Hodgson, Robert Bloch, and H. P. Lovecraft. After reading these stories, I began to devour other horror stories, both old and new, but this anthology has always remained one of my favorites, for in my memories, it's the first adult horror anthology I'd ever read.

One of the other stories in the book was a short one called "The Animators," by Sydney J. Bounds. I'd never read anything by him before this book, and unlike the four authors I've mentioned above... I never read anything by him since. But "The Animators" stuck in my  mind as surely as did any story from the book; a grim, depressing, dark, and rather frightening story about a crew of scientists on Mars who discover a form of life that, when it infects a dead body, animates the body into something akin to a violent zombie! One of the most horrifying aspects of the story was that the hero was being pursued by relentless zombies across the Martian landscape. The hero was running low on oxygen... but the zombies, of course, were not... he was faster, but the faster he ran, the more oxygen he used... and if he died before the rescue ship arrived and he could warn them... then the animators would reach Earth!

So it shouldn't surprise you that when I'd heard "The Animators" was being adapted into a movie, I was hopeful and wary.

The Last Days on Mars just debuted on Halloween on numerous streaming sites online—it's going to have a theatrical release in December, but I was done waiting. I fired up the old Xbox and paid the 10 bucks to rent it... and I'm happy to say I was NOT disappointed! It's an independent and relatively low-budget movie, but it looks really good! Not only are the effects well done, and not only is the acting and writing also excellent... but this is the first movie set on Mars that looks like it could have actually been set there. The outdoor scenes look like what we're seeing from NASA, in other words, not deserts filmed through red filters. When things go bad, they stay bad and quickly escalate, but there's plenty of moments for character development that enhances the story as we go. The end is slightly different in the movie from the book... but only physically—as far as themes go, it nails it.

Whew... I'm relieved!
Wonder how many actual missions to Mars will, ultimately, come down to this in the end?

The Last Days on Mars...
  • ... managed the nearly impossible task of not disappointing me after over 3 decades of fond memories of the original story first making an impression on me.
  • ... follows in the footsteps of this year's Europa Report and Gravity in presenting some impressive and mature and disturbingly believable outer-space thrills.
  • ... features "zombies" more akin to the maniacs from 28 Days Later than the truly undead monsters from Dawn of the Dead.
  • ... captures the sense of dread in the story that arises from the knowledge that you have limited air and resources that don't bother the things that are increasingly trying to get you.
  • ... convinced me that if I'm ever a scientist on a Martian laboratory that I shouldn't leave the power drill just lying around.
  • ... is thankfully free of people doing stupid things just to advance the plot—when the captain orders someone to "stay out of the creepy hole in the Martian landscape," they do. It doesn't matter in the end, of course!
Grade: A–

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Book Review—The Feaster From Afar

A few weeks ago, I wrote about blobs for a Monster Day post, and in said post I mentioned in the Recommended Reading list a short story called "Slime," by Joseph Payne Brennan. I'd read the story in an old anthology decades ago, likely something I borrowed from the Bookmobile or the elementary school library, and I'd long since forgotten the name of the anthology. But, obviously, I hadn't forgotten the name of the story itself.

In the decades since, I've become quite the afficionodo of weird fiction, but for some reason, I've managed to get this far having read only one or two of Joseph Payne Brennan's stories. The blob post reminded me of him, and I sought out collections of his works to buy. But I was vexed by the fact that there weren't many nice, hardcover copies in print. There were a few out of print books that looked great (including an Arkham House edition of one that'll be reviewed here soon), but none of them contained "Slime."

Except for one—The Feaster From Afar.

It's fun reading well-selected anthologies of short fiction by single authors, because you can spot themes in their writing. Joseph Payne Brennan often writes in these stories of desolation and forgotten things; of ancient neighborhoods being torn down and replaced by soulless modern architecture, of lichen-encrusted hills and foul swamplands, and of course of weirder things. Vengeful corpses. Space Vampires. Carnivorous Slugs. Great Old Ones. And, of course, Slime. In fact, here's a list of the monsters and fiends and horrors to be found in this anthology:

Carnivorous slimes, undead hulking corpses, drowned dead, witch-cursed devolved humans, ancient elementals, minions of the Great Old Ones, infernal shades and specters, aberrant horrors from other dimensions, vengeful revenants, primeval masses of woodlands-haunting tentacles, swarming man-eating slugs, memory eating vampires from the dawn of time and space, planet-ending hordes of radioactive mutant rats, what lies beyond the edge of the universe, demons wearing ancestors as shells, lonely ghosts, Hastur, blood-drinking plants, graverobbers, squamous horrors below old graveyards, spirit snatching demons, cursed voodoo dolls, and vengeful mummies.

Joseph Payne Brennan
So, yeah. Pretty awesome book. My favorite five stories? Vampires from the Void, The Feaster From Afar, The Business about Fred, The Gulf of Night, and of course Slime.

The Feaster From Afar...
  • ... combines the classic pulpy Lovecraftian themes from the mid 20s with the best of the 50s science fiction movies.
  • ... is filled to the rim with great ideas for plots for Call of Cthulhu games.
  • ... bears the words "The Selected Weird Tales Volume One," yet it appears that the next volume(s) are dead in the water. Sadness!
Grade: A+

Monster #15—Mothman

The majority of my early childhood exposure to monsters and horror came at my grandparents house. Both my grandfather and grandmother on my father's side were prodigious readers. My grandpa had several stacks of horror comics, like "House of Mystery" and "Tales of the Unexpected," while my grandmother kept me well supplied with reading material—she gave me Cujo to read at the ripe age of about 9 or 10, and a year or two later gave me some Clive Barker books. It was in my grandparent's reading room that I first discovered F. Paul Wilson, Dean Koontz, and many others.

Including mothman.

The book was The Mothman Prophecies, by John A. Keel. The copy I found in my grandma's collection had what looked like a photo of a scary flying red-eyed monster on the cover, and proclaimed in bold red letters: "COMPELLING AND GENUINELY FRIGHTENING!" How could I resist that?

Turns out, those letters are right.

The Mothman Prophecies doesn't read like a horror novel; it's presented as a collection of case studies and interviews and investigations performed by John A. Keel, exploring the mysterious sightings of a red-eyed monster that was haunting the region around Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The book went on to link Mothman to shadowy government conspiracies, the men in black, UFOs, and of course the collapse of the Silver Bridge.

When X-files finally came along, it already felt familiar to me as a result, because this book was very much a proto-X-files. And mothman's been creeping around in the back of my mind for the past 30 years or so as well.

I wish my hometown had a mothman statue.
Reccomended Reading
 Recommended Viewing

Friday, May 24, 2013

Movie Review—The Awakening

OBSERVATION: Between 1914 and 1919 war and influenza have claimed more than a million lives in Britain alone.

CONCLUSION: This is a time for ghosts.

So claims the opening scene of The Awakening, in the form of plain white text on a grainy black background while low, ominous music builds. It's a powerful way to start a movie, and for the first 60 minutes or so, the movie keeps that power in a slow burn buildup of tension and creepiness. The plot centers on a woman named Florence Cathcart, a woman desperate to find proof of the afterlife and ghosts in order to take the edge off of some of her own personal losses, yet in investigation after investigation she reveals so-called hauntings to be misunderstandings or hoaxes. She's called upon to investigate a possible haunting at a boarding school that may just have resulted in a student's death, and so begins a classic plotline that would fit well in any era.

But by setting the movie in the direct shadow of World War I in 1921 Britain, the movie becomes something more—it seems infected with the hopelessness and despair that must have gripped the world after a decade of some of the most horrifying mass deaths modern civilization has ever endured. Indeed... if any time is a time for ghosts, it is after the planet's been seized by war and disease for nearly a decade.

Unfortunately, the movie can't keep its momentum going. I've come to really appreciate ghost movies these days that simply tell a spooky tale that unfolds gradually, allowing us to learn the mysterious and macabre background that caused the haunting as the film progresses... WITHOUT feeling the need to add in a third-act surprise that turns everything that's come before into something else entirely. I blame The Sixth Sense, of course, for the popularity of this type of movie. For a while, I was hoping that The Awakening would be something more like The Innkeepers or The Devil's Backbone, but no... it couldn't resist the twist ending.
Yeah. Old timey ghost photos. The easiest way to creep me out.

And no... Comparing it to the Sixth Sense doesn't reveal the surprise twist—it's actually a pretty creative twist, but it wasn't NEAR enough to live up to the film's opening thesis. Still... pretty creepy ride getting there, and once the surprise was out in the open, I was able to continue enjoying the movie... just not at the same level as I had when it started.

The Awakening...
  • ... loses sight of its intriguing story in its attempt to provide a twist ending.
  • ... is never not spooky to look at, even when there's nothing particularly supernatural going on.
  • ... actually has a second twist to the storyline once the primary twist is revealed; this second one is a lot more spooky and disturbing, and I kind of wish they'd just abandoned the first twist and kept the second one.
  • ... gets a lot of mileage out of its time period and setting. It's rare to see a horror movie take place in a non-contemporary setting, it seems.
Grade: B+

Movie Review—Fast & Furious 6

These Fast & Furious movies are an example of a movie knowing exactly how to do what it needs to do to work. They're over the top, loud, and filled with tough guys and tough gals and fast cars and improbable stunts, and of late they've added a new element to the mix–the "during the end credits super plot twist to set up the next movie."

I won't lie. I enjoy these movies. But I'll be the first to admit they're illogical, ridiculous, and ludicrous.

But they also have a surprising amount of continuity between movies, even if it didn't seem that way to begin with. The fact that they're up to part 6 is, perhaps the most ludicrous part of it all, and damn if that final teaser at the end of the movie a minute after the credits began to roll doesn't have me eagerly anticipating the next one more than any that have come before. Adding Dwayne Johnson to the franchise was a stroke of genius... but they may have outdone themselves with who's on board to be the villain for the next one!

This is, in a nutshell, what the Fast & Furious movies are all about.

Fast & Furious 6...
  • ... has fewer explosions than Star Trek Into Darkness. Which is also kind of ridiculous.
  • ... had me waiting for the surprise cameo the entire movie—if you don't know who it is, don't seek out the information, because you'll spend the entire time wondering if you risk going to the bathroom to miss the introduction of the character.
  • ... had a trailer for the new Riddick movie in front of it, which paid for the trip to the movie in and of itself.
  • ... doesn't have time to mourn the loss of countless tank-crushed drivers.
  • ... has a lot more cars being used as anchors than I've seen recently—none of which are used to anchor boats, because that's boring.
Grade: B

Movie Review—Star Trek Into Darkness

Now I think I have a better idea what folks were objecting to in Prometheus. And that objection has a name: Damon Lindelof. He was one of the writers for both Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness, and while I'm a huge fan of Star Trek, that fandom pales in comparison to Alien. As such, I was able to put up with more plot holes and problems in Prometheus than I could here. Now... I'm not saying that Damon Lindelof is without a doubt the reason why I didn't like Star Trek Into Darkness... actually, wait. I think that's exactly what I'm saying.

I was willing to let go of all my preconceived notions about Star Trek and established canon. After all, the previous movie made it pretty clear that J. J. Abrams is going in some new directions with the series, and he did a great job with that movie, I thought. And the cast is more or less spot on perfect for their roles—Chekov was a bit underused and forgettable, but everyone else had at least one great scene. Zachary Quinto as Spock is probably my favorite role, but Zoe Saldana as Uhura is pretty awesome too.

The effects are incredible. The villain is memorable. The acting is great. The explosions blow up real good. The writing, though... there's a number of unfortunate plot holes in here, as well as some unexplained goofiness. It's a well-done action movie, but I think that's the crux of my problem. The Star Trek stories that I feel are the strongest, be they movies or the shows, are the ones where they embrace character growth or tackle actual science fiction plots. Preferably both.
Why can't I get that "Bilbo Baggins" song Leonard sang out of my head?

Star Trek Into Darkness doesn't have much time for sci-fi—nor does it have a lot of time for new character growth... mostly because what it DOES have it more or less borrows liberally from a previous Star Trek movie.

I'm eager for the series to continue under J. J. Abrams' direction, but only if it goes somewhere new... soemwhere no director has gone before. At least, in the canon of Star Trek plots.

Star Trek Into Darkness...
  • ... has a monster in it. Not in a big part, but looking at all my favorite Star Trek episodes and movies... they almost all have monsters or killer robots in them.
  • ... has a pretty big reveal in it that the trailers have teased but haven't revealed. Somehow I managed to go 5 days without having the reveal spoiled, and I was pretty delighted with it as a result.
  • ... also seems like it gives away a big scene in the trailers, but for me at least, it only misdirected my expectations, which ALSO delighted me.
  • ... thinks it knows about the Prime Directive, but doesn't really.
  • ... frustrated me with how little the transporters were used, and how often the movie had to invent reasons for them not to work. It was like how horror movies have to invent reasons for cell phones not to work. The best horror movies know that they should find ways to let those phones work but STILL put their characters into peril. Hopefully future Star Trek movies figure out how to let the transporters work while still having a plot.
  • ... is, despite my disappointment, still one of the better Star Trek movies. It's easy to forget how many of them are really really terrible.
Grade: C+

Movie Review—VHS 2

This is a weird year for me and the Seattle International Film Festival. Normally, there's about 15 to 20 movies I want to see, and I know I won't have time to see that many, so I'll pare it down to 6 to 10 movies and still end up having to miss at least one for some reason, because the festival always seems to time itself for the Gen Con rush and Paizocon, and deadlines wait for no film festival.

So I was pretty excited this year that our Gen Con rush hit a month early, and when Paizocon was a month later than I expected it to be, because that more or less left me with a pretty open schedule to see movies at SIFF.

And then, the schedule came out, and something strange happened. There was only one movie I really wanted to see. It was the least interesting SIFF I've seen. Usually there were a lot of cool horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and action movies to choose from, and then in wading through those options I'd find other cool movies outside of my favorite genres to see as well. This year... no luck.

I saw the first VHS last year at SIFF and was quite delighted; it was my favorite movie of the festival. This year, I saw VHS2, and it was my favorite movie of the festival THIS year. And not only because it's the only movie I'll be seeing at SIFF. It's actually as good as the original. Better in some ways, worse in others, but overall a delightful entry in the found footage category.

As with the first one, the framing story has some investigators discovering a strange situation in an apparently abandoned home revolving around a creepy stack of VHS tapes, and it's the contents of those tapes that make the movie. It's a found-footage anthology movie, and one thing that always seems to happen with anthology movies is that there's one good or really good segment, but the others are varying degrees of mediocre or outright bad. Creepshow dodged this problem, and so did both VHS movies.
Sometimes you can tell when a scene in a movie is about to get pretty violent.

Whereas the 1st one had 5 shorts, this one only has 4, but each one is better than the worst one from VHS. Here, we've got victims dealing with a state-of-the-art cybernetic eye that lets you see more than you probably should or certainly want to see, a mountain biker out on a trail eager to try out his new cameras and who rides smack into the midst of a zombie apocalypse, a team of documentary filmmakers investigating a creepy cult compound on what's destined to be the most important day in said cult's history, and a group of kids fooling around while the parents are out of town but a singularly spooky set of visitors from far, far away happen to be IN town.

I liked the third one the best—the idea of having a film crew on-site when a cult prepares for the end of days and things suddenly spiral out of control is in and of itself fascinating... especially when it turns out the cult leader might actually be on to something!

  • ... never quite equals the greatness of the first film of the first movie, but it's good all the way through.
  • ... does some things with the zombie movie genre I've not yet seen done before, and that kind of surprised me in a pleasant way.
  • ... isn't the goriest or most violent found-footage movie I've seen (that award ties for Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox), but it's a lot more entertaining than the goriest or most violent found-footage movie I've seen.
  • ... has me ready to see VHS 3 next year at SIFF. Hopefully I'll be seeing more than that though!
Grade: A

Movie Review—Iron Man 3

The first Iron Man movie was an unexpected surprise for me, because I had pretty much no expectations going in. The second one, as a result of how much I enjoyed the first one, was an unexpected disappointment, due to a combination of a mediocre script and my high expectations.

Both of these movies worked together to prime things perfectly for Iron Man 3. I didn't have particularly high expectations, and the movie wasn't nearly as good as the first one but it was better than the second one. The two best parts of the movie are Robert Downey Jr., who really means it when he says "I am Iron Man." He's pretty much perfection in the role. The other best part is Gwyneth Paltrow, who gives the movie a bit of class while also getting a chance to be a superheroine herself. Strike that; there are three good parts. The third one is Ben Kinglsey. But he's always fun to watch. Even if he's in the worst movie of the year. It's happened before. Let's hope it never does again.

Overall... a fun movie! But not for the special effects, really, as well-done as they are. It's a fun-to-watch action movie for the dialogue. Weird.
Of all the unexpected technologies in the movie, the fact that Tony Stark found a pay phone ranks up there pretty high.

Iron Man 3...
  • ... has a stinger after the credits finish. It's not setting up anything new, as did all the pre-Avengers Marvel movies, but it's fun nonetheless.
  • ... has a pretty crippling plot hole. If you've seen the movie, you know the ace in the sleeve that Iron Man reveals in the final act... an ace that he could have played at any time during the movie but he didn't because then the plot wouldn't work.
  • ... has some great ties to Avengers. Nothing direct, but let's just say that even Tony Stark can't look in the eye of things that make deities frightened and not come out unscathed.
  • ... makes a pretty significant change from the comics to a major character. I've never read the comics, but I was still looking forward to seeing this character on screen, and when said character ended up being pretty different I was a little disappointed. But in and of itself, within the movie on its own, it's a pretty cool plot twist.
 Grade: B

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Monster #14—Parasites

I know, I know... Parasites are monsters already. Want proof? Go google images of bot flies, guinea worms, warbles, and... actually, don't google those at all. Trust me. You don't want to see that stuff.

This post isn't about real-world parasites. Those are too frightening. This post is about monster parasites from film and fiction. These critters are horrifying and disgusting and vile, but when the movie is over and the book is done, you can breathe easy, knowing it was all fiction. Right?

In fact, now that I think on it, my two favorite movies are about parasites. In Alien, you've got a creature that has a complex five or six stage life cycle that uses another living creature as a host to transition from its second and third parasitic stages into its fourth and most violent stage. And in John Carpenter's The Thing you have a creature who's every single cell is its own creature, a parasite that invades any living thing, feeds on it, and then becomes it.

Hmm. This is kinda suddenly exploding into a huge new category, the more I think about it. I mean... there were the freaky insectoid lice creatures that infested the body of the monster in Cloverfield, the supernatural demonic entity of the Rec movies, the slithery worms in Slither and the creepy worms in Night of the Creeps, the critter from Wrath of Khan, and of course the eponymous parasite of the movie Parasite (AKA Demi Moore's first movie). Which, as you can see below, has an incredibly awesome trailer.
At least it's not a guinea worm!

Actually... I'm gonna stop here and just start the reccomended viewing and reading lists. There's a lot. I'm sure I'll forget some. But the following should keep you squirming for a while.

Recommended Reading

Recommended Viewing

Double Sized Book Review—We Live Inside You / Angel Dust Apocalypse

Know what's fun? Finding a new author who knocks you out of your seat with the raw power of his storytelling craft.

I stumbled across Jeremy Robert Johnson's We Live Inside You on by accident, but with a title like that I couldn't not investigate more closely. I bought the kindle version of the book while my intrigue was still running high, and less than a minute later was reading about a man who got infested with a creepy parasite hivemind that not only took over his body but, increasingly, took over his entire personality. Even the tone of the story shifted in tone as the narrator became more and more proud of the fact that he was no longer merely a meat body but thousands of bodies. His joy in being able to share this bliss with the rest of the world, starting with the occupants of a movie theater who unknowingly began breathing in his microscopic airborne larvae, was really really really unsettling.

There's actually several stories about creepy parasites in the book. My favorite, hands down, was not the aforementioned "When Sussurus Stirs" but in fact the incredible "Cathedral Mother," in which a woman, driven to the extremes of eco-terrorisim in her pursuit of preserving the old growth redwoods of Northern California, stumbles upon a parasitic danger high in the canopies of the very trees she's trying to save.

Not all the stories in We Live Inside You are about parasites, though. There's actually a wide range of stories in here—stories about the end of the world caused by a devastating chant, of ghostly vengeance from beyond the grave, of strange drugs and stranger cults, gritty noir dramas and CDC horror stories, patricide, dead kids, and so much more.

By the time I finished, I was eager for more, and so I zipped back online and a few moments later, Angel Dust Apocalypse was on my kindle. More parasite stories awaited within this book, much to my delight, along with stories about the apocalypse itself that were both sublmine and over the top. You've got a story about a man making a suit out of cockroaches in order to survive in a radioactive wasteland. Or a story about a society where body modification is more than just mainstream, it's the route to fame. Or a story about a bitter young man who hates having to take care of his mentally challenged younger brother. Or how one woman reacts to the news that her husband may have been decapitated in a car crash and she needs to drive north to ID the body by a tattoo. Or of a particularly horrific Native American curse. Or a story that starts off with: "You could bite Todd's nose off."

The stories are raw, visceral, grisly when needed, and powerful. Jeremy Robert Johnson's the type of author who can set you on edge merely with his titles—especially once you're familiar with his writing style. I had to pause in dread and anticipation before continuing the book once I got to the story called "Priapsim," for example...

We Live Inside You / Angel Dust Apocalypse...
  • ... makes the show Monsters Inside Me feel like a Disney movie.
  • ... has a lot of really interesting behind-the-scenes stuff by the author where he talks about his writing style and techniques.
  • ... makes me glad I had a kindle, since if I hadn't, I might have not bothered buying the book.
Grade: A+ (We Live Inside You), A – (Angel Dust Apocalypse)

Book Review—The Twelve

One of the things that kind of bugs me is when I'm reading a novel that's part of a series, and I've read the previous installments of said series, but then the novelist spends too much time reminding you of what happened before, as if said novelist doesn't trust that you've read the previous stories.

That's certainly not a problem with Justin Cronin's The Twelve, the second book in his vampire apocalypse saga. I was VERY impressed with the first in the series, The Passage, and eagerly tore into this one. As with The Passage, the first significant portion of the book functions as a sort of prequel, detailing events during the events that brought about the end of the world, introducing us to several really cool characters as we follow their efforts to survive in a world where vampirisim is taking over.

The bulk of the novel, of course, takes place about 100 years after that, focusing on most of the same characters from the first novel. They're no longer naive young adults, now, though; they've had a harrowing time in their journey, and they're now pretty rough around the edges. And if anything, some of the things they go through in this one are among the more harrowing ordeals I've read recently... not because of the violent or horrifying nature of their ordeals so much as because by the time things really start going bad, you're really invested in the characters. Cronin does a great job making you care about the characters, and the way he almost casually reveals near the start of the novel that some of the previous novel's survivors have died in the time between the two novels, it's really unsettling and distressing.

And that brings me back to the start of the review. There's a spoiler-free Dramatis Personae at the back of the book... but it's SO spoiler-free that it kinda doesn't help. I really should have done what I do whenever a new Song of Ice and Fire book comes out—read up the Wikipedia pages for the previous books to get reminded about where things were at when last we left our heroes and villains behind.

The book itself, though? It's excellent. Cronin does a brilliant job at presenting the vampires as creatures of science but also creatures of supernatural mystery. In fact, the science is so prevalent near the first half of the book that as things that are more and more unexplainable by science happen, they really do feel spooky and frightening in a way they wouldn't had the vampires had blatantly supernatural powers from the very beginning.

Looking forward eagerly to the next in the series!

The Twelve...
  • ... isn't afraid to kill off characters you've come to like, nor is it afraid to bring back characters you thought were killed off!
  • ... faces the reader with some difficult truths, in that it casts sympathetic characters in the role of suicide bombers, and manages to make you understand why such tactics might be the only choice, which is kinda disturbing.
  • ... has a somewhat frustrating habit of skipping some of the more exciting action scenes and revealing what happens only after the fact, but certainly doesn't skip away from the hard to read parts about some pretty vile stuff.
  • ... raised some pretty interesting questions that I hope will be explored in the third and final book—not the least of which is what's going on beyond the USA 100 years in the future!
Grade: A –