Sunday, December 25, 2016

Ghost Stories for Christmas

It's a wonderful time of year-the weather turns colder, and we all cuddle up with a nice ghost story, thinking of the chill outside as we warm ourselves by the fire. For Halloween I did a nice literary list of monsters, but at Christmas, when we're all frenzied from being pulled in a million directions, sometimes vegging out in front of a screen with a fuzzy blanket is all we want. So here it is: my Christmas gift to all of you, in no particular order, a fine collection of films that treat the traditional "ghost story" exquisitely.

Ghosthouse (1988): If you're into dolls and houses, this one has everything-weird sound effects and all.

Ghost Story (1981) : Fred Astair and an old boys' club secret? This is a slow-burner, effectively chilling and moody

"Halloa! Below there!"
Signalman (1976): Starring Denholm Elliott, this Charles Dickens adaptation is one of the best British Ghost Stories for Christmas adapted for television. You'll never look at train stations the same way again.

Woman in Black (1989): I've recommended this title before, but it really is the best of its kind. If you can get your hands on this adaptation of the Susan Hill novel, do so. But at your own peril.

The Changeling (1980): Another solid performance from George C. Scott. This one has mood and genuine scares, and should not be missed. Neither should his performance of Scrooge, but...

 Nothing says spooky like an old wheelchair, am I right? From Cryptic Rock

Mama (2013): Filmed with a modern sensibility, this ghost story still follows expected tropes, taking them to new places. A contemporary classic.

The Others (2001): /The Innocents (1961): Both based on Henry James's Turn of the Screw, and both, interestingly enough, taking a different side of the debate about the text's interpretation. Crazy governess? Ghosts? A little bit of both? You bet.

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964):  Vincent Price is the perfect Christmas gift for any afficionado of the strange and macabre, especially in this Poe adaptation that plays with the author's core themes.

Ebeneezer! *Ahem* I mean, Mr. Price...A Merry Christmas to you, sir, wherever you may be.
From Scream Horror Mag

The Orphanage (2007): This movie is beautiful and sad, and another nod to my love of Spanish Gothicism, but traditional enough for all tastes, with a whistful, fairy-tale-gone-wrong theme throughout. In the extras, the director J.A. Bayona said his intention with this story was to explore what happens to the mothers of children who become part of Peter Pan's band of Lost Boys.

The Devil's Backbone (2001): You may think Guillermo del Toro and his proteges are over-represented here, but I beg to differ. It's his sensibility, you see, his passion for good old-fashioned ghost stories that he infuses with the gloomily beautiful aesthetic that only he can bring that keeps him high on the list of good Gothic.

 And I heard him exclaim, 'fore he drove out of sight, Merry Christmas to All, and to all, a Good Fright!

Image result for night before christmas

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Thoughtful Surprise-Don't Breathe

I've seen plenty of home invasion movies, and some much more extreme in its violence, but there was something striking and disturbing about Don't Breathe, executed perfectly through suggestion and visual storytelling, with the production values at top notch.

Image result for don't breathe movieDon't Breathe puts a spin on the home invasion story, where the invaders - a bunch of silly teenagers looking for a way out of Detroit - very quickly fall victim to the homeowner, a blind war veteran with every reason to keep people out of his house. This twist in the narrative allows for a very interesting exploration of morality. It goes beyond being grey: it fluctuates on a scale, effected by each turn of the plot and the choices the characters make. How you felt about the film, and how justified any one character was in committing violence changed over the course of the film. That's something I haven't really seen.

The storytelling was organic. Everything made sense, even the surprises. They justified why the blind man is so keen on keeping people out of his house. Even though you don't see the reason coming, the fact that there is one, instead of just a random conceit of a kook who has more security than he needs, is much more compelling. The well-laid out plot unfolded on the screen in a way that kept the behaviors of the characters unpredictable, making it edgy and full of suspense. At no point did I feel I was watching yet another iteration of some overdone trope. Another triumph for low-budget horror.
Also, the blind man, played by Stephen Lang, is extraordinary. His voice is at tones vulnerable and menacing, (which exemplifies how our society sees broken veterans) and his movements are jerky, clipped, and stunningly horrific.

From Pop Sugar 

The production values are what really elevate this. The set of the man's house is so tight: sharp corners, narrow hallways, and at all times as the story moves through the house, you feel its confinement. This is integral to the narrative, for the blind man knows the way through his own labyrinth. The people trying to escape have a really rough go of it, especially when the lights go out and you get a wonderful shift in lighting, which is spectacularly crafted throughout. The darkness and careful lighting of the whole film is one of its best features. As is the organically made music, which sets the perfect mood, and is made all the more interesting by the short film on its production, provided with the blue ray, that shows an orchestra constructed from the kinds of materials found inside the house. Creatively brilliant.

In short, Don't Breathe is an exemplar of everything that can be done without a whole lot of money.

K Rating: 9/10

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Brillianty Brackish - The Bay

I had an earlier post about the things that make good found footage films: namely, innovative use of the cameras and an organic storytelling that requires such an approach.  A few nights ago I discovered another one: The Bay.

Set in the Chesapeake, this clever little film starts with the interesting premise of the strange phenomena Charles Fort wrote about. In this case, scores of dead fish filling the bay, and flocks of birds falling dead from the sky. They start off with actual footage of these events, then diverge from them to tell a suspenseful story about a mutated parasite that wreaks bloody, disgusting havoc on the Fourth of July festivities in Maryland.

Scariest of all? These are real. From Tree Hugger
There were many great elements to this movie, first and foremost the storytelling. It was entirely believable in every way, and the use of different cameras was explained as the collation of different footage that provided an explanation for the environmental catastrophe, but that had up to this point been suppress. The movie is the leak of this footage, so to speak. So we got lots of different styles of footage, each thoughtfully directed. My absolute favorite was the scope inside a dead fish to show isopod parasites eating the fish from the inside out.

I never liked arthropod types to begin with, but my god, this movie has some utterly gross special effects--masses of people vomiting blood, giant isopods going in and out of people's toes were tingling while I watched. That doesn't happen all so often, so kudos to them.

Helping the very realistic feel of this was a solid performance by the cast all around. It was fresh and unpretentious, the characters behaved as people entirely aware of themselves being filmed, and it made their story resonate that much more as it unfolded.

All this, and it still had time to say something very powerful about government bureaucracy, crisis prevention, corporate accountability, and industrial waste. I was very impressed.

K Rating: 9/10

Friday, December 16, 2016

Better than Fiction: The Borgias

I knew of The Borgias when it originally aired on Showtime, but finding out its historical foundations were a muse for Game of Thrones (debuted in the same year) convinced me to I give it a try. This is hands down the best TV show I have ever seen. I'm a big can of Game of Thrones, and a bigger fan of The Walking Dead, but episode to episode this show was stellar across the board.

This was a gorgeous show to watch. The sets, costumes, and art direction were carefully crafted scene to scene to imitate the style and feel of period paintings, right down to where characters stood in relation to each other. Such thoughtful design is rare.

Picture perfect - from TV Envy

Comparing it to the GOT series is useful, because it highlights all the things this show did right. All the members of the Borgia family, including the detestable Juan, are people you sympathize with, people you root for. No matter what dastardly thing that they're planning-incest, deception, murder, more murder, theft, pillage, you name it-you want them to succeed. Each character-especially Cesare Borgia and his henchman henchman Micheletto, are badass through and through. Lucrezia was spectacular. It was exciting to watch their machinations, and it was a much more positive watching experience than GOT, which has plenty of the same things, but is much more depressing in its tone.

I loved his acting before, but this performance takes
the cake

The other side effect of this flipped approach in GOT is that there is plenty for fans to hate. I hate Cersei-not just love to hate, simply hate. And the Tullys. And Jon Snow. The list goes on, because we're pulled in so many directions. The Borgias is much tighter storytelling, and not for lack of being epic. We meet the royal families of Naples, Milan, Forli, France...and it still is infinitely more cohesive.

My only regret is that they never got their fourth and final season. If you only ever watch one piece of historical fiction in your life, make it this.

K rating: 10/10

Monday, December 12, 2016

Together Again - Walking Dead Season 7

Image result for xena season 3 dahak
*Sigh* Life-changing episode...for her, I mean.
"The Deliverer" Xena Season 3
I haven't been this emotionally tied to a show since I was a teenager-and even then, season finales (the third, in particular) choked me up with the loss of an integral character.

With The Walking Dead, I am now either crying, cheering, or covering my mouth in outright shock pretty much during every episode.  Feeling this way midway through its seventh season? With no musical numbers yet, the kiss of death for any genre show?  Wow.

Part of what makes this series the powerhouse that it is is that they don't ease up. Ever. It goes beyond the precept that no one is safe. The intensity by every actor in every episode is so palpable that even if you know what's coming, or just think you do, it hits you like a...well,  like a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire.

Dem's my boys- image from digitalspy
The reason that last night's episode was so uplifting at the end wasn't just the fight put back into Rick, or Daryl's successful escape. It was that for a long time, since the Governor came to the prison, really, things have been fractured-we go deep with individuals or small groups, but it's not the way they were in, say, Season 2, where for the most part everyone was in the same place. So this uprising will hopefully bring a return to form, where we see not just how interesting each character is, and their individual relationships, but how great they are on screen together. The cast is what gives this show its power. Those powers are about to coalesce. Bring it, Season 7, we're ready.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Baron Blah-I Mean Blood

Let me start off by saying, I fell asleep during this movie. Twice. I was surprised at the beginning of Baron Blood, directed by Mario Bava, by the fact that Baron Blood is apparently Dracula. Except not really. The monstrous Baron come back to life goes by the name of Otto von Kleist. I suppose impaling people at the castle gates was more common than we thought: for that's the initial story behind the Baron. Add to that the fact that he was burned to death, and cursed by a witch to forever suffer the torture of his death. The film amounts to a series of interesting propositions that don't go anywhere, or at least get there very very slowly. That threw me, as did the lackluster performance of his descendant Peter, played by Antonio Cantafora.

This dopey college kid comes back to learn about his family history, and within half an hour is in the castle, using incantations to bring the Baron back to life with Eva (Elke Sommer). It works, and immediately after, of course, the incantation to condemn him forever is blown into the fireplace. Duh. The rest of the story involves the Baron on a killing spree, and the young couple trying to enlist the help of Dr. Hummel, in charge of restoring the castle. The scene when Peter is attempting to convince Dr. Hummel of the truth is absolutely devoid of emotion. The English dubber wasn't helping, but the face of the actor was entirely expressionless. No exaggerated features, no intensity in the eyes, nothing. He could have been saying, "See Jane run fast," for all the power of his performance. So the tension of the story falls flat.

Image result for baron blood movie
She's the star here- no question
Where Bava shines is in the visual aspect of the film. When Eva is running from the killer, the shots of her running through the streets are beautiful, moody, and well-crafted.  Sommers has a distinct look: she's modern and modelesque, and watching her emote was the most stimulating thing about this film. The same is true of the scene where the Baron makes use of the iron maiden: 'nuff said. But unfortunately, these features weren't strong enough to save the plot, which had some twists and turns, but didn't keep gravity away from my eyelids. For a director on such a tight schedule, it's understandable, I suppose, that not every film is a masterpiece. 

K Rating: 5/10

Monday, December 5, 2016

WTF Lovecraft? The Dark Chamber

Who wouldn't pick this up with
an endorsement like that?
Branching out of your reading comfort zone can be a good thing--especially when your authorial comfort zone is primarily restricted to dead white guys. But in my avid search to try new fiction, there are bound to be blunders. I'm sorry to report that I've put down more books without completing them in the last six months than I have in as many years. Painfully, The Dark Chamber by Leonard Cline was one of them.

I tried hard. Really, I did. I was very patient for the story to begin as the narrator - whose name or even gender I did not know for at least ten pages - tells his drab tale of a brooding house with people all sensing that catastrophe nears them,  stemming from the undefinable research of Richard Price, the patriarch trying to transcend what he refers to as ancestral memory, which is much like mental time traveling into the consciousness of your ancestors.

It wasn't just the quote on the cover from Lovecraft, saying the book was a "work of art." It was also the back copy, with praise saying it was as good as Dracula or better. To say that these two works are similar in any way would be to say that Jonathan Harker, who comes to act as Dracula's solicitor, is vaguely uneasy in his new surroundings, yet willingly stays on in his post for lack of motivation, and is entirely content to remain with the boring company of Dracula's household as they do nothing all day but dispense idle chatter.
This one tiny scene has more tension than the 100+pages
I read- akin to Dracula my a**.

Because that, so far, is all that's happened. And I was halfway through the book. The characters are dull, their dialogue is dull, and there is no more mood or tension than the narrator's repeated suggestion that everyone is expecting something bad to happen. Except it doesn't, and they all go on with their empty routines.

I suppose I can see what Lovecraft appreciated - the ill-defined character of Price has an eldritch flavor, and there are philosophical theories put forth by Price that harken to Lovecraft's concept of the cosmic. But saying in so many words that you can't see Price's face, and his movements are eerily fluid does not a Cthulhu make. Lovecraft is the superior writer. No surprise there, but what I was appalled at was his seeming lack of a discerning eye for quality, suspenseful, horrific writing. In this case, at least. When reading feels like a chore, you've got a problem.

I didn't read the whole thing, which would normally stop me from reviewing it entirely, but as you see I did have something to say. With that, I'll refrain from a number rating. Just go pick up something else. Dracula, if you're smart.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Writing Dialogue - To Say, or Not to Say

I read a great post about dialogue this morning at another blog, This Itch of Writing, and since it's so relevant now to the WIP keeping me up nights (Up From the Bog, if you're new here), I thought I'd add my two cents.

So many authors struggle to create powerful, poignant dialogue-I recognize it in my own writing when I re-read, and it was something I had to really work at in A Vision in Crimson, my first fantasy installment. I'm proud of the finished product, coming soon, but it was one of the bigger obstacles I faced. It took many many many rewrites to get it where I thought it should be. I think for me, part of the functionality of rough dialogue was that I was just getting my feet wet as a fiction writer, so I wasn't really in my characters' mouths yet. I was hedging a lot ("Well," "you see," "you know"...) a linguistic action I'd come to recognize when I studied forensic linguistics in college.

Beta readers helped identify problems, as did the fact that I was writing something epic. During the many drafts of A Vision in Crimson,  and across volumes as I continue to write the series, I was spending a lot of time with my characters. The more I wrote them, the more natural their speech came. Because I knew them better, for one, and I was getting more practice at my craft. I'm catching myself doing it again now as I'm knocking out a first draft of Up From the Bog. I have more writing experience now than I did for my first project, but not with these characters, especially since I'm writing two first-person voices. It's a challenge. A satisfying challenge, but a challenge.

Even for people not writing a series, it could be an interesting exercise to write smaller pieces with your characters in different scenarios, to get good practice with them as being distinct voices, and discovering the right linguistic chemistry between them.