Friday, October 13, 2017

Demonic Giallo: Beyond the Door

Image result for beyond the door movieBeyond the Door (1974) came into my orbit when I read about it on Fantasy Literature. It called the film a mash-up of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, not giving it much more credit than that. The things it said it didn't like about this film, in relation to the well-known works, raised an eyebrow, as did the relegation of the film being to only for hardcore completist horror fans.

I beg to disagree. Beyond the Door has much to offer horror fans of all stripes, being a masterful mingling of a variety of horror themes and tropes popular to its time. It is a fine example of the charm that 70's horror exudes. One small indicator of the film's thoughtfulness are the children of Jessica, the pregnant woman who becomes possessed by the devil. They swear unflinchingly throughout the film. I found this both entertaining and intriguing - it was a clever twist on the idea put forth in The Exorcist that obscenities alone, from the mouths of children, are shocking enough to be labeled "demonic activity." Here, it is used to demonstrate the autonomy these young children have without substantial adult supervision, and sets the general tone for the family dynamic.

The trippy, non-linear storytelling is an essential component of this film which, no offense, seems to have gone above the head of the person whose review caught my attention in the first place. The Lynchian style "Is is future, or is it past?" sort of narrative makes the film more interesting and compelling, in my view, than the films which influenced it. It also allows for a stronger, more cohesive concept of the demonic here. The over-narration at the beginning of the film makes it very clear that you're dealing with the devil: not some random demon, not just one of his many faces. Such things are unclear in The Exorcist over the course of the franchise, and go from unclear to downright confusing the more Exorcist movies you watch.

The non-linear telling also served as a major plot point with the antagonist in the film, the character who at first lures Jessica into a satanic ritual, then allows her to escape. He exists on borrowed time for the purpose of retrieving her, but his existence brings to the story a stronger metaphysical character that is ultimately rewarding, and feels extremely authentic and organic to the alternative, metaphysical spiritualities that experienced a heyday in the 60's and 70's.

It also allowed for the more unique moments of possession in this film, with layered and split photography providing the backbone for the special effects. The best, scariest moments of the film were the ones that didn't look transparently like Linda Blair. There are some excellent moments (my favorite was the children being terrorized), and with the length of the film, the scenes that were too derivative could have been cut without detriment to the movie.

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Lastly, this style of filmmaking is something I have seen before - it falls very neatly into the category of gialli, Italian horror from this period that is known, through names like Dario Argento and Mario Bava, precisely for its nonlinear narrative and explicit scares. That Beyond the Door is very firmly a part of this context seemed entirely lost on the writers at Fantasy Literature, and is most likely the reason why the film could not be appreciated for its depth or complexity, and instead decried the filmmaking as confusing and chaotic. The proof of this is in the pudding: it's an Italian production, the male lead (Gabriele Lavia) played a prominent role in Deep Red, Dario Argento's masterpiece, and in the sequel to this film, Daria Nicolodi (Argento's wife) plays the female lead. All of this suggests that a film like this one ran in those circles.

For all those in favor of demonic possessions, satanic rituals, David Lynch, vintage horror, international films, weird/speculative storytelling, and high art in films, Beyond the Door is for you.

K Rating: 5/5

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Invisible Gods: City of Stairs

My usual critique of fantasy fiction that just doesn't hit the spot is that the characters are good, but the world-building leaves something to be desired. For City of Stairs by Robert Bennett, the opposite is true. The world-building was great. It felt fresh and original, and I really loved the concept of a city filled with stairs that lead to nowhere--or rather, that the places they led to no longer exist. At least for mortal eyes. Also, the non-Western influences that are all the rage these days were noticeable, without being used like copy-paper. Well done.

City of Stairs is set at an interesting, clever point in Bulikov's history. It has fallen as the sacred city, conquered by the very people they had conquered for centuries. Their gods, the architects of the city and much much more, are killed by the Kaj, and any records or history of the gods are kept from their would-be devotees.

Not that I believe you can actually do that (cultural memory is stored in individuals as well as on paper), BUT, after the murder of an ambassador, the granddaughter of the Kaj is sent to Bulikov to solve the case. The deeper she digs, the clearer it becomes that not all the gods were destroyed, as the new empire was led to believe.

All that was great. And the gods and their sub-deities are all very distinct, robust, and intriguing. What didn't work for me were the main characters: Shara, the Kaj's descendant, now working as some kind of field agent, her partner Sigrud, and Vohannes, one of the leaders of Bulikov's elite and a person of increasing interest. Shara is mousy but intelligent: interesting on its own, but not suited to "field-agent" work. Sigrud does all that. He's interesting, but the platonic chemistry between them doesn't really work because it's not offered in enough depth. There's plenty of backstory on the non-platonic chemistry between Shara and Vohannes, but what Bennett ends up doing is villainizing Vohannes by his behavior, even though it is clear he's not meant to be. I'm all for people needing to figure out who they are, but not at the expense of other people, and certainly not without remorse. Which is essentially how Vohannes is described. So when Shara falls back into a familiarity with him, it seems entirely misplaced.

Unlike my usual gripe, where the characters pull me through a bare-bones world, I kept anticipating the turns in the plot, and had to actively ignore the inauthentic behaviors of the story's heroes. And the sequel just sounds like a repeat of this story, focusing on one of the secondary characters I didn't care a whit for in the first place. The plot was wrapped up so tidily, I have no imperative to read any further in the series. Bummer.

K Rating: 3.5/5
**New Author Goal: 19**

Saturday, September 30, 2017

More Dumas, Please! Traitor's Blade

Alexandre Dumas is one of my favorite authors of all time. His three (actually, four) musketeers are a treasure to me, so I was pleased to find a new action-packed series inspired by Dumas' fearless characters, with a bit of fantasy thrown into the mix.

I read Traitor's Blade as quickly as Falcio (the D'Artagnan of the story) runs headlong into trouble, and then away from it again to save the life of a young orphaned girl, fighting to keep the entitlements of her noble birth.

The story of Falcio and his two friends is recounted in a nonlinear way, as current circumstances are paralleled with the recent past. We get just enough of the world's history to understand that the King's Men (the Greatcoats), have been disgraced by the death of their king, and that the world belongs to cruel Dukes who rule like tyrants. I came to understand perfectly the dream of justice and valor at the birth of the Greatcoats, and how that dream lives on in Falcio's heart despite the fallen state of his office and that of his fellow Greatcoats. The coats, by the way, the actual coats? What a nice touch, imbuing them with intelligent design and suggestively magical properties.

The introduction of magic into this kind of swashbuckling felt really fresh and I thoroughly enjoyed it; my only complaint is that I could have used more of it. In some places, the use and purpose of such magics was kept secret from the characters, and thus the readers, and I think maybe that was too much. I would have liked more insight into this side of the world. And the religion, too. We get lots of saints' names, which I found a very interesting use of the French Christian history, but grounding that kind of a system would have made it feel more complex and compelling, rather than just a unique way of swearing.

This was a terrifically fun read, but I did notice that it was unbalanced. It was clear without being stated in the bio that the author is a fight choreographer (among other things), because each encounter is marked out with precision. I appreciated that, but it took up so much space in the book, that in many ways the plot could be boiled down to running from one fight to the next. The best parts of the book where the instances of insight into the political machinations of the world, but, remember, I am an avid Dumas fan, and nobody outdoes the master in political intrigue. Nobody. The villains in Traitor's Blade were vile, to be sure, but almost stereotypically so. I craved for more depth on this front, more conniving, more deceptions, alliances, twists and turns. I felt a little bit of Lady de Winter, but not quite enough of her here. And no Richelieu-that is to say, no serious mastermind. Just transparently cruel Dukes doing transparently cruel things. That transparency, bred out of their entitlement and their laziness, robbed the story of an intriguing impulse, and sense of suspense.

I will definitely seek out the next book in the series, but with the sincere hope that de Castell will take away more than just the violence and fun from Dumas; that he will aspire to reach an almost unattainable layer of depth.

K Rating: 4/5
**New Author Goal: 18**

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Some of the funniest frickin' cinema I've ever seen- if you haven't seen this 1973 version, you must.

Monday, September 25, 2017

A Tepid Beauty - The Last Unicorn

Though I grew up loving unicorns, I'd never read Peter Beagle's classic The Last Unicorn before. Having returned to fantasy featuring a beloved creature after so long, I was disappointed.

Don't get me wrong-the language was beautiful, and many times, even more than that: it was magical. There were other times, however, more than I care to mention, where the attempt at lyrical writing got in the way of the story. Not every single thing in the plot needs to be described in some poetic, mythical, or allegorical fashion. At times, when what was happening to the characters was unclear, the language was a frustrating obstacle to the plot.

And here we come to the heart of the matter. Perhaps, in its day, The Last Unicorn was supremely influential, and became the inspirational bedrock for all the unicorn stories yet to tell. But the book didn't strike me as timeless. By that, I mean that I didn't appreciate it as a groundbreaking work because the plot was just so simple and straightforward, sometimes downright plodding, where the unicorn seeks out other unicorns, suspecting she is the last, and teams up with a magician and an old woman young at heart. The unicorn then transforms into a human and falls in love while saving the unicorn population from a wicked curse and a sinister king.

All that might sound very exciting, but the narrative moved along with no sense of urgency, and no real sense of danger. It's a very short book, and took me quite a while to read for its slimness. I've read 300+ pages a day with books that sucked me in. This was slightly less that 200, and it took me over a week.

Ah, well. They can't all be Into the Land of the Unicorns, now can they?

K Rating: 2/5
**New Author Goal: 17**


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Solid Stephen - It

Image result for red balloon transparent backgroundThough It was never my favorite Stephen King movie (that's reserved for Pet Sematary), and I didn't read the book (liked The Shining best), I do love my Tim Curry, and loved his Pennywise. Thinking, "who could possibly top that?" I almost passed over this new iteration of It. I never cared much for clown tropes anyways. But then I found out who was playing the new Pennywise-one of my new favorite actors, Bill Skarsgaard. I've been watching his amazing performance in Netflix's Hemlock Grove, and just knew I had to see what he could do to scare a bunch of kids into floating.

He did not disappoint. His Pennywise is his own, and it's quite scary. What I liked so much about this movie was that, as full as it was with "jump scares," they all served a very real purpose. Most of the time, those kinds of cheap thrills are for the audience's benefit only. That's not how the most horrific scenes in this movie are framed. It's the way that Pennywise scares the kids, isolating them and taunting them before spiriting them away-so you feel a connection to those characters. They felt entirely authentic and organic to the storytelling. It was so good that, even when I was scared, I was grinning like an idiot at how awesome Skarsgaard was.

I enjoyed the darker places that this version of the movie went to, pulling more from King's original text, which I appreciated. The history of the town's curse was really exciting as well. The woodcut-style colonial sketch with Pennywise peering out was especially good, and I won't be at all surprised to see some form of that on my walls one day soon. I'd love to see that story element developed further in the sequel to this film, where a very grown-up group of kids must rehash this nightmare.

K Rating: 5/5

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Lesson in Time Management - Twin Peaks

Image result for twin peaks 2017I've waited for the frenzy to die down a bit, allowing myself to digest Showtime's revival of David Lynch's cult show Twin Peaks. I've come to the conclusion that it was very much like the original show, in that there were certain things I couldn't get enough of, and other things I could have done without. Furthermore, that this sort of imbalance, which is frustrating because of how strongly the "good" segments resonate, is part of Lynch's style.

The great parts of this show were really great-I clung to every word during the FBI segments, and waited with baited breath for Dougie Jones to wake up, and realize himself as Agent Dale Cooper, the poor bloke who's been trapped in the red room for twenty-five years.  The segments taking place inside Twin Peaks were great as well-I especially loved Hawk's conversations with the log lady, and the seriousness of those scenes, despite their bizarre content. It made their dialogue feel immediate and urgent, despite its cryptic nature.  The same was true of the Garland Briggs narrative. You were never 100% sure what was going on, but you got more and more clues along the way. The special effects in alternative universes, swirling sky vortexes, and the lost time at Jack Rabbit's Palace were so out there, and yet so menacing and disturbing at the same time.Those scenes are the ones that satisfied the most.

On the lighter, humorous side, I loved the Horne brothers. They were endearingly hilarious, as were the Mitchum brothers.

Bringing everything we saw this time back around to Laura Palmer was a master stroke. But the problem was we didn't get any sort of revelation or closure as to the nature of Laura and the larger significance of her murder, or Cooper's quest to rescue her.  Not even a Lynchian conclusion.

For me, that comes down to a genius who has too many ideas in his head to see them all to fruition. There was an inordinate amount of time spent on things that ultimately didn't matter. Audrey Horne, for example. And her and (evil Cooper's?) son. And Norma's diner. The worst offender was Jacoby's "shovel out of the shit" radio program. While I fully appreciate that these things populate the world Lynch has built and give it some of its flavor, there were many episodes that felt slow as sin because too much time was being spent with them, to the detriment of the things that keep me absolutely riveted. The end result was a big fat question mark for Laura Palmer and Dale Cooper, and an only marginally satisfying reunion of Cooper with the Twin Peaks Sheriff Station.

Lynch's "take it or leave it" approach to his art is his prerogative as an artist, true. But, Lynch does not exist in a bubble. He has editors, producers, distributors, and an audience that have allowed his creation to come into being at all. So I don't think it's unreasonable for a show that's so unconventionally good to be somewhat conventional in leaving its viewers satisfied. I'm not saying I need a happy ending, but I need to be satisfied by what I watch, not frustrated by it. So as much as I loved Twin Peaks, there were lots of misses within its greatness, and I feel that Lynch made a major misstep by ending on the note that he did. There is only one solution: more Twin Peaks.

Rating: 4/5

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Seriously, Lynch? Come on!!!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

THE SPECTER OF THE INDIAN: BLOG TOUR SCHEDULE


I'm so pleased to announce the schedule for the blog tour of my historical nonfiction book, hosted by Pump Up Your Book!







Title: THE SPECTER OF THE INDIAN: RACE, GENDER, AND GHOSTS IN AMERICAN SEANCES, 1848-1890
Author: Kathryn Troy
Publisher: SUNY Press - Summary from their website HERE






Participants:


Monday, September 4

Tuesday, September 5

Wednesday, September 6

********

Monday, September 11

Tuesday, September 12

Wednesday, September 13

*******

Monday, September 18

Tuesday, September 19

Wednesday, September 20

*******

Monday, September 25

Wednesday, September 27

Thursday, September 28

Friday, September 29