Color Out of Space: Horror Comes Home

This essay contains spoilers for Color Out of Space.

It’s been hard to be an H. P. Lovecraft fan the last few years. I don’t mean because of his often-lugubrious prose style, his penchant for unpronounceable names, or his tendency to describe his horrors as “indescribable” (how convenient!): those traits tend to be the source of affectionate ribbing between fans rather than cause for cancellation, or at least come down to matters of taste. But Lovecraft has come under greater scrutiny in recent years for his racist views; whether you believe, as I do, that he underwent some revision of those views in the last years of his life, broadening his perspective, the fact remains that in his private letters and early writings he gave vent to opinions on race that put him in extreme company, even in the 1920s. Nor is this a case where one can easily separate the art and the artist, for his fiction, even some of the greatest of his stories, clearly come from a personal place in which Lovecraft’s xenophobia and fear of miscegenation form the basis of the fantastic horrors he describes (not to mention the more explicit references to the race and ethnicity of his human characters when they do appear).

These criticisms have been a long time coming, and they hardly blew up overnight: indeed, recognition that the “old man” wrote a few impolitic things has been present at least since his stories began to be collected and reprinted for an audience beyond the pulp magazines in which they first appeared. The world of fantasy and science fiction was, like many fandoms, an insular one, and the most influential voices within it tended to be white and, like me, insulated by privilege from feeling truly hurt by Lovecraft’s words. Robert Bloch, in his 1982 essay “Heritage of Horror” (the introduction to The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, the paperback collection that was an introduction to Lovecraft for many readers, including me), devotes two whole paragraphs to the charge of racism against Lovecraft, ultimately dismissing it as just one more spurious charge laid against the master by uncomprehending outsiders.

Both fiction and scholarship have, to their credit, attempted to grapple with this legacy rather than ignore it in recent years. On the new fiction front, the subversion or reimagining of Lovecraft’s themes, often written by people of color and tackling Lovecraft’s personal biases directly, has breathed life into a subgenre of horror that frequently consisted of stale imitations. Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, for example, is set in the 1950s and centers on a black science fiction fan, captivated by the imagination in pulp stories but acutely aware of the subhuman depictions of black people in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and others. What, he asks, do you do when you love a genre that doesn’t love you back? The hero’s nephew, for one, creates a comic book space opera with a black heroine, based on his mother, and that’s one strategy (witness the success Jordan Peele has had creating horror centered on specifically black experiences: expanding representation means new and better stories for everyone).

There’s also the 2015 decision to change the World Fantasy Award trophy from a bust of Lovecraft to something more abstract. For the record, even as a fan I think that’s the right call: as much as it was meant as an affectionate tribute when it started in 1975, in this day and age it’s a little odd to have a trophy representing “World Fantasy” look like any single person, as if it were all their idea, and I can’t blame the minority and POC writers who felt that they were being asked to place their work under the symbolic authority of a man who when alive would likely not have recognized or welcomed them. Finally, it’s a decision that makes it easier to keep the man himself in perspective, as one of many authors and with human flaws, rather than an Easter Island totem, unanswerable and above criticism.

I can’t say that I was directly thinking about these issues while I watched Color Out of Space, Richard Stanley’s new adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour Out of Space.” What most struck me was that the film, in which a strange meteorite contaminates and destroys a small New England farm and the family that lives there, feels up to the minute, urgent even, in ways that are present in the original story and feel completely true to it, even as Stanley prunes and updates the text. But as I let the film sink in over the next few days, it occurred to me that it is next to impossible to talk about Lovecraft now without being aware of the discussion around him, and that for many people Lovecraft’s racism has become the sum total of what they know and think about him, particularly if they haven’t encountered him firsthand (and how many will now avoid him, if they think that every story is but a thinly-veiled racist screed?).

Yet here we are with a largely faithful feature film, and one that not only feels relevant but which features a multiracial cast and does so without a major rearrangement of the text. Lovecraft may be a “problematic fave,” but he continues to hang on in public consciousness because of something at the core of his writing, some essential observation of modern life. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” Yes, Lovecraft was a pessimist, but there are times when pessimism and realism are one and the same, and reading a bracingly dark vision can be strangely life-affirming. Lovecraft–pedantic, verbose, racist–hangs on because of the clarity of that vision.

In “The Colour Out of Space” (which appeared in Amazing Stories in 1927, one of only a handful of Lovecraft’s stories to appear in a science fiction magazine rather than his usual Weird Tales), an unnamed surveyor visits the ancient wooded valleys around Arkham, Massachusetts (one of Lovecraft’s fictional towns) in advance for a new reservoir that will flood the land. Finding a desolate area called the “blasted heath” by the country folk, the surveyor tracks down a local farmer named Ammi Pierce, who tells him about the “strange days” forty years prior, when the “blasted heath” was the farm of Nahum Gardner and his family. Pierce relates the story of the meteorite that landed on the farm and the glass-like globule or “bubble” at its center: “the colour . . . was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all.” Over the course of the following year, in Pierce’s telling, the vegetation and animals around the farm go through strange metamorphoses, displaying a vague sense of “wrongness” familiar to readers of Lovecraft, but eventually turning the same unidentifiable “colour” and even visibly glowing at night. The people of the farm, Gardner’s family, become watchful and unhealthy, convinced that something is wrong but unable to leave. The farm’s well, in particular, seems to be at the center of their misgivings. Their transformations become more and more horrible, until the night Ammi Pierce and a delegation of lawmen from Arkham witness the transformation that leaves behind the “blasted heath.” The resolution is as uneasy as the ending of a 1950s monster movie: the danger is passed, but only for now, and it leaves behind the uncomfortable awareness of how dangerous the world really is.

“The Colour Out of Space” has been regarded as a cautionary tale about nuclear radiation and fallout: it was written well before the atomic bomb became a reality, but radiation was already a known phenomenon on a smaller scale, and world-destroying bombs and plagues were familiar in the pages of the pulp magazines long before they hit the front pages of newspapers. The intimations that the meteorite and the unearthly “colour” come from somewhere alien, where the forces of nature are different, place this story within the “cosmic horror” subgenre Lovecraft is known for, but it is essentially a story of contamination: the horror is one of environmental pollution, of body and mind being betrayed and corrupted by the elements around one.

In transferring this story to the screen (and for the record, this is not the first movie adaptation–I’ve even written about another loose adaptation, Die, Monster, Die!), Stanley (with co-writer Scarlett Amaris) wisely eliminates the frame story. The surveyor (now a hydrologist, played by Elliot Knight) is the protagonist, directly visiting the Gardner farm and getting involved in the action, and rather than being set years in the past everything has been updated to the present. Instead of being a yeoman farmer, Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) is a businessman who’s made his pile in the city and moved his family back to his father’s farm, living off the land and living the dream. I recognized this person immediately, right down to the alpacas he has added to the farm (“the animal of the future,” a phrase that will come to seem downright ominous). Theresa Gardner (Joely Richardson), a breast cancer survivor, continues to work as a stockbroker, the laptop and headset mic she uses to connect with her clients incongruous with the tiny garret that serves as her office. The family, with its three children–Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Benny (Brendan Meyer), and the youngest, Jack (Julian Hilliard)–may have its issues, but it’s basically functional: they can work things out.

Until, that is, the night of the meteorite. It’s not really possible to depict a never-before-seen color, but Stanley does make it look spectacular, ladling on the neon pink and purple, lens flares and other prismatic effects, and accompanying the visual flashes with eerie sounds (comparisons to the palette of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy are apt). Even the arrival of the meteorite is a big event, causing computers to glitch and affecting each member of the family differently; the staging implies that the stone’s arrival is as much a psychic event as a physical one, and did it really fall from space, or from an opening to another dimension? Once everyone comes outside to look at it, it looks like a pink, pulsating brain. Later on, as the alien color seeps into everything around it and pink-hued flowers sprout around the farm, it’s as if the landscape is being turned into the surface of another planet (and indeed there are suggestions that that’s exactly what is happening). As the meteorite begins to show its malign influence, the transformations the animal life and eventually the family experience recall John Carpenter’s The Thing, or the ooky body horror of Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna.

Unlike some adaptations, Color Out of Space is explicitly set in Lovecraft’s imaginary “witch-haunted” New England: in addition to nearby Arkham, there are references to Innsmouth and Kingsport; the hydrologist, Ward Phillips (one of Lovecraft’s pen names), wears a Miskatonic University tee shirt. Although Lovecraft’s original story predates Cthulhu and his other famous creations, the Necronomicon makes an appearance in the film, but it’s the “Simon” Necronomicon, a mass-produced paperback published in 1977, and it doesn’t provide any answers. The film begins and ends with some of Lovecraft’s own words as voice over delivered by the hydrologist.

By coincidence, less than a week before seeing Color Out of Space I had watched The Last Mimzy for my review of Henry Kuttner’s short fiction: in both films, Joely Richardson plays the mom of a family experiencing an incursion from otherworldly forces. The Last Mimzy is an optimistic film, injecting Kuttner’s story with about 1000% more woo in the form of Deepak Chopra-style speculation about connections between quantum mechanics and meditative states, Tibetan mandalas, and dream visions along with Kuttner’s fourth-dimensional speculations, and it grafts a “children are our future” sense of purpose onto the story. It’s a far cry from the nihilistic horror of Color, and I was tempted to say that the coincidence of Richardson’s casting says something about our national mood then and now. I couldn’t honestly make the comparison, though: The Last Mimzy was released in 2007, post-9/11, in the midst of the Iraq War, and with the culture wars already in full swing. Rainn Wilson’s character in Mimzy, a science teacher, makes the point early on that pollutants, including cultural pollutants (?), can actually change a population’s DNA, corrupting them from the inside. It has a hopeful point of view, to be sure, but the anxiety that the rot is already present is clear.

The same thing is going on in Color Out of Space; the rot is just further along. The color affects each member of the family differently, but the suggestion is that the color is bringing out and corrupting something already inherent in their character. As the mom, Richardson is alternately spacey and shrewish, finally undergoing a sort of inverted pregnancy, drawing her youngest son back into her body. Witchy eldest daughter Lavinia becomes a cosmic priestess of the color, cutting occult sigils into her own flesh. Ezra (Tommy Chong), the squatter who lives off the grid in a shack on the Gardners’ property, becomes a literal burnout; he comes to understand the color and even provides the hydrologist with a vision of the color’s alien home, but that knowledge doesn’t help him escape it.

Nathan Gardner becomes a parody of middle-aged dadhood, berating his family and making tough decisions one moment and settling into his easy chair in the next, watching the static on his TV and surrounding himself with the ghosts of his departed family. (Since this is a Nicolas Cage vehicle, he gets a few good freak-outs, but the build-up is more gradual than in some: unlike in Mom and Dad, he doesn’t seem unhinged from the beginning.) In one scene, Nathan rants about how he followed the rules but everything still went to shit: in context, he’s talking about his crop of tomatoes, tinged with the unpleasant taste of the color, but it’s not hard to hear in it the frustration we’ve all felt, that the game is rigged and that we’re at the mercy of a system we can’t control.

Ultimately, this is environmental horror: the cosmic stuff just gets us in the door, but at its core the fear is real enough. The fact that the mother is a cancer survivor is significant, I think, symbolic of the cancerous growth of the color throughout the Gardners’ farm, but also a reminder that the healthy exterior at the beginning of the film was only an illusion. News clips on television show dead fish and reports about climate change; the hydrologist’s presence on the farm is due to the planned reservoir, a source of manmade devastation. Whatever is in the well at the farm will soon be part of the municipal water supply for a much greater area. Color Out of Space is a vision of an ordinary family destroyed by forces that mankind as a whole has set in motion, and which are as unstoppable as storms, earthquakes, and meteors. “It’s in the water,” the characters tell each other, but there is nothing they can do but drink.

Rediscovering Henry Kuttner

January is Vintage Science Fiction Month, so I’m diving into the short stories of the prolific author Ray Bradbury dubbed “a neglected master.”

“Mimsy Were the Borogoves” was adapted into the 2007 film The Last Mimzy.

Henry Kuttner is, for me, one of those authors I saw frequently represented in anthologies of the golden age of science fiction, but whom I rarely had a strong picture of as an individual, someone with a singular set of preoccupations or stylistic tics. One story would be horror, the next social science fiction, and still another might be light fantasy. If Kuttner is today not a household name*, perhaps it is his ability to work in several different veins, and his ability to channel a variety of authorial voices, that keeps the man himself out of focus. (For this article, I read the 1975 collection The Best of Henry Kuttner, but several other stories I consulted were found in scattered multi-author anthologies.)

As an example, I first encountered Kuttner as a younger member of the Weird Tales circle embroidering on H. P. Lovecraft’s growing Cthulhu cycle. “The Salem Horror” (1937) was included in August Derleth’s seminal Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and Kuttner’s Weird Tales output also included pastiches of Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery stories.

As Kuttner discovered his own voice, a strain of light fantasy emerged, with concepts from folklore or mythology existing in the modern world, often using the incongruity as a source of gentle (or not-so gentle) comedy. In “Masquerade,” from 1942, a honeymooning couple stumbles on a family of degenerates (who may or may not be vampires) living in a former lunatic asylum, wryly commenting on how cliché it all is (“Look, if I started a story like this, any editor would shoot it back,” the narrating husband tells his wife.)

“Masquerade” was adapted in a 1961 episode of Thriller.

Some of these stories are reminiscent of his contemporaries Robert Bloch (with whom Kuttner sometimes collaborated) and L. Sprague de Camp, or even the earlier Thorne Smith (“The Misguided Halo” is one of these), and had a clear influence on the younger Ray Bradbury. Still other stories fit the description of science fiction as “the fiction of ideas,” with theories of social or technological development, and the question of man’s future, front and center, although the dialogue and characterization are often better than that description would suggest: if, like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Kuttner sometimes wrote stories whose sole purpose seems to be making use of a social theory or scientific factoid, Kuttner’s strength was to humanize that impulse, showing the effects of progress and change from an individual’s perspective. In that sense, there is a continuity between Kuttner’s stories and the early fiction of Philip K. Dick. If Kuttner had lived longer (he died in 1958 at the age of 43), it’s possible that he would have made the leap to the more introspective, experimental science fiction of the 1960s. Instead, he foreshadowed it.

When discussing themes in Kuttner’s work, one must also acknowledge the author’s long collaboration with wife and writing partner C. L. (Catherine) Moore, whom he married in 1940. I’m a big fan of Moore’s writing, especially her “Northwest Smith” and “Jirel of Joiry” series, both of which appeared in Weird Tales. Untangling who contributed what to stories published under Kuttner’s and Moore’s individual names can be tricky, and many of the stories now attributed to one or the other of them originally appeared under the joint pseudonym “Lewis Padgett” or numerous other pen names. The couple shared a single typewriter and bragged that either of them could pick up the thread of a story where the other had left off without a break. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction holds that all of the stories in The Best of Henry Kuttner were in fact collaborations, so perhaps it would be best to think of “Kuttner and Moore” as a team like “Lennon and McCartney,” with some projects being independent work but always in the context of the ongoing partnership.

Two themes emerge strongly in Kuttner’s mature stories: in one strand, the Lovecraftian concepts Kuttner cut his teeth on are adapted to notions of technological and social evolution. In stories like “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” and “The Twonky,” the intrusions from other worlds are not the work of sinister alien gods and their cults, but are carelessly scattered artifacts from civilizations at a different level of development, either a future state of evolution or from a parallel reality in which “normal” has a very different definition than ours. “Mimsy” centers on a box of unearthly educational toys that gradually condition their users to life in four or more dimensions; in “The Twonky,” a combination radio-phonograph turns out to be an artificial intelligence in disguise, an in-home butler, watchdog . . . and jailer.

In Arch Oboler’s 1953 adaptation of “The Twonky,” the story’s radio-phonograph was replaced by a television.

These unnerving (and prescient) stories broach the idea that futuristic technologies could rewire human brains, turning their users into geniuses, madmen, or passive slaves. As in “Call Him Demon” (one of Kuttner’s finest tales, a story of cosmic horror told through the lens of recollected childhood), it is only children, their minds not yet set into routine patterns, who can truly pick up on these messages from outside. To adults, the signs are either undetectable or incomprehensible. Ray Bradbury, noting the impact these stories had on himself and others, wrote “I very much doubt that ‘Zero Hour,’ or for that matter ‘The Veldt,’ would ever have leaped out of my typewriter if Kuttner’s imagination had not led the way.” (In retrospect, Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time builds on the foundation “Mimsy” established; I would also include C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag” as another tale indebted to Kuttner’s concepts, with that author’s own bitterly ironic twist, of course.)

The other prominent thread relates to mankind’s future evolution and the possibility of beneficial mutation. In the humorous Hogben stories, a family of backwoods mutants with incredible mental powers do their best to live beneath the notice of snooping big-city scientists and other busybodies. These are tall tales for the nuclear age, providing fantastical solutions to common problems, as when Junior Hogben jury-rigs a time machine to make cream sour faster in “Cold War.”

In other stories, the implications of human evolution are much darker, and the prospect of a struggle between homo sapiens and homo superior looms. Some of the new breed wish only to live in peace like the Hogbens, but others seek to dominate their merely human inferiors or bide their time until there are enough others like them, realizing that unmutated humans would hate and fear them if they knew that supermen lived among them. Combining nuclear anxiety, metaphors of societal prejudice, and drawing clear comparisons with early humans’ elimination of Neanderthal competition, these stories are instantly recognizable as an inspiration for Marvel Comics’ X-Men.

In stories like “Absalom,” there is a specifically Oedipal dimension to this struggle, and we’re back around full circle to the notion that children are essentially psychopathic, their minds still malleable, buffeted between conflicting influences. Parenting is tough enough, but in a family of telepaths, where does one draw the line? “The Piper’s Son” (part of the “Baldy” series expanded into the novel Mutant) sensitively asks that question, comparing the balance of power within a family to the uneasy search for a growing Baldy minority’s place in a rebuilding postwar society.

Beyond these major themes, there are plenty of surprises. Judging science fiction by the accuracy of its predictions is a rookie mistake, but in addition to Kuttner’s farsighted critiques of technology as an agent of conditioning, one finds, for example, the suggestion of a viral meme (in the form of a catchy song) used to disrupt an enemy’s organization in the wartime tale “Nothing But Gingerbread Left.” In “The Proud Robot,” one sees subscription-based television services more like Netflix than the radio-license model Kuttner seems to have had in mind. Of course, the predictions that ring true are more likely to jump out at the reader–I’m still waiting for the robotic judge, jury, and executioner described in “Two-Handed Engine,” and I’ll probably continue to wait–and whether a prediction comes true doesn’t say anything about the quality of that story. It’s a truism that every story is really about the time it was written, no matter what year it’s supposed to be set in. Don’t we read old science fiction in part for those glimpses of a world that could have turned out differently? In the case of Henry Kuttner, there is still entertainment–and thoughtful observation of humanity–to be had, if we but look.

* Don’t take my word for it: Robert M. Price wrote in his 1995 introduction to The Book of Iod, a collection of Kuttner’s youthful Lovecraft pastiches, “Henry Kuttner’s star shines neither so brightly nor so high up in the firmament as it once did. . . . Today it is sad but safe to say that just about all of Kuttner’s exceedingly clever fiction is the property of literary nostalgia-lovers and antiquarians.”

“Merry Christmas, Bigfoot!”: A Suite of Offbeat Christmas Movies

In recent years, I’ve gorged on Halloween movies during October, and I watch a fair number of movies by myself during the rest of the year as well. But being a musician and having a family means that it’s harder to find time in December to watch things that the rest of the family doesn’t want to watch. There are quite a few Christmas- and holiday-themed movies that are darker, edgier, or just weirder than the usual run that I don’t always have time to get to (and which I don’t feel like watching out of season: Krampus in July just doesn’t have the same effect). This year, however, I found the time for a mini-marathon of unusual Christmas movies.

“What?” I hear some of you saying, “Christmas is over! It’s January! Isn’t it a little late for Christmas articles?” Actually, today is the twelfth and final day of Christmas–those weeks leading up to the 25th were Advent. So if you’re all Christmased out, maybe you should have thought of that before you started jamming Christmas carols on November 1st! (Or you could just bookmark this and read it next December when you’re looking for something seasonal to watch.)

In any case, these aren’t necessarily the BEST weird Christmas movies or the WORST or even the WEIRDEST weird Christmas movies; they’re simply the ones I watched this holiday season. Consider this a frontline dispatch from the War on Christmas.

Pottersville (Seth Henrikson, 2017)

When shopkeeper Maynard Greiger (Michael Shannon) discovers that his wife (Christina Hendricks) is secretly part of a furry club, he drunkenly dons a gorilla costume to reclaim her interest and inadvertently sets off a Bigfoot craze in his small town. The resulting comedy is a slightly cracked take on the Hallmark formula (will Maynard get back with his wife, or will he notice the nice coworker played by Judy Greer who has stood by him the whole time?) with a contemporary edge. (Furries are perfect for this kind of movie because they signal “this is kinky” without showing anything explicit; this is a Netflix movie, but it’s PG-13 according to imdb.) As the hysteria, including the arrival of an Aussie-accented TV monster hunter (Thomas Lennon), reaches fever pitch, Maynard and the other townspeople ponder just what they’ll do for a taste of fame and excitement. Pottersville riffs on It’s A Wonderful Life in both the title and a “richest man in town” climax, but above all it’s an excellent showcase for Shannon’s “what the hell is going on?” face.

Jack Frost (Michael Cooney, 1997)

There were two movies about snowmen coming to life called Jack Frost made in back-to-back years. One of them starred Michael Keaton as a dead father who comes back to life as a snowman to help raise his son. I watched the other one, about a serial killer named Jack Frost who, through an accident involving a secret government experiment, is turned into a living snowman and uses terrifying elemental powers to seek revenge on the small-town sheriff who sent him to Death Row. (There is . . . a lot going on in this movie.) Jack Frost definitely falls into the “comedy horror” category, in which such contrivances as the killer’s name or the fact that it takes place in the town of Snomonton, “Snowman Capital of the World,” are barely commented on (convoluted as it is, the explanation for Jack’s transformation is actually pretty cool, and could be the basis of a more serious sci-fi movie). It’s all great fun, and actually suspenseful in places, but it’s also a classic example of a poster that doesn’t look anything at all like what’s in the movie (most of the time Jack in snowman form looks like Frosty, and toward the end when he assumes a more dangerous form, his mouth ringed with icicle fangs, he doesn’t look like this).

Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)

I haven’t yet seen the recent remake (or the one from 2006); this is the original. As winter break begins, a killer stalks a sorority house, terrorizing the sisters with obscene phone calls. This is a tight film, jumping into the suspense right away while balancing it with human interest scenes and subplots. I imagine it was even more shocking when it came out, before its killer’s-eye-view shots and creative murder methods became the stock vocabulary of the slasher genre (although I think its “the call is coming from inside the house!” twist was already the stuff of urban legends when this was made). With its visual flair (Clark does wonders with match cuts), attractive cast (including familiar faces Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Andrea Martin), and thematic concerns (including a possibly mad musician played by Keir Dullea), it strongly reminded me of the thrillers Dario Argento was making around the same time (perhaps both were influenced by Mario Bava; I haven’t done a lot of research on this one).

Santa Claus (René Cardona, 1959)

This Mexican-made children’s film is really three movies in one: a sentimental morality play, in which a poor little girl overcomes the temptation to steal and trusts in Santa (and by extension her parents and Jesus Christ); a documentary-like survey of Santa’s base of operations and working methods, complete with solemn voice-over (at least in the English dub I watched) and explanations for every bit of Santa’s magic; and a wacky comedy about a devil named Pitch, sent by Lucifer to tempt children and throw a wrench in Santa’s plans. The last part is what most people remember, and is also the most entertaining, full of magic and slapstick. I won’t say this is a great movie, but it is an interesting one, as Santa’s North Pole headquarters, full of children from all over the world (interns, I guess), is truly lavish, and the additions to Santa’s lore (including a variety of surveillance devices, charms to help him on his Christmas Eve journey, and a personal friendship with Merlin the magician) would fit perfectly in a Rankin-Bass animated special.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Nicholas Webster, 1964)

Remember that scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure where Pee-Wee rides his bicycle through the Warner Bros. lot and interrupts a bunch of different film shoots, and one of them is a Christmas movie with fake snow and people in gingerbread man costumes? That’s basically what this movie looks like; it’s charming in its quaintness, but perhaps if this had been an animated film it might have a better reputation. The plot is simplicity itself (if you’re looking for a space-age angle on Christmas in 1964, that is): the no-nonsense Martians grow alarmed when Martian children start watching television programs from Earth and become distracted and dissatisfied with their utilitarian lives: Earth children get presents from Santa Claus! The Martian high command draws the obvious conclusion, sending a ship to Earth to kidnap Santa and bring him back to Mars (along with a pair of Earth children who had gotten lost at the North Pole). Most of the Martians (presented as green-skinned, with Captain Video-like TV-antenna helmets) are basically good but misguided, but Santa and his friends must overcome a bullish Martian officer who thinks getting rid of Santa once and for all will end the distractions that threaten to make Mars soft. Ultimately Santa conquers the Martians with kindness, not rayguns.

Rare Exports (Jalmari Helander, 2010)

Now here is a Santa not to be toyed with. In this Finnish film, an archeological expedition on the Russian border uncovers the tomb of the original Santa Claus, encased in ice. But this is the old Santa, the pagan demigod who punishes naughty children–and they’re all at least a little bit naughty, aren’t they? Only a young boy, Pietari (Onni Tommila), realizes what has been reawakened and convinces his reindeer-hunting father and his colleagues to fight back. Along with Black Christmas, Rare Exports was one of the best Christmas films I watched during this mini-marathon; it’s tightly paced (I was frequently reminded of Edgar Wright) and just grounded enough to help the more fantastic ideas come off, and the clever mythological twists are well thought-out (not surprising, as the feature film was preceded by a couple of short films establishing the premise in the decade before).

Anna and the Apocalypse (John McPhail, 2017)

In the world’s only Christmas-themed zombie musical (I assume? I mean, it’s gotta be, right?), Anna Shepherd (Ella Hunt) has enough to deal with, including difficulties relating to her widowed father, a dictatorial school headmaster, and a love triangle that includes her best friend, and on top of that, it’s Christmas! As in many such movies, the zombie epidemic first appears around the edges of the story–a radio report here, an ominous sign of death there–before it spills out into the open. Then it’s a life-or-death struggle for Anna and a group of her friends to get to the school where the other students and their parents are trapped. There are some witty moments–as is also typical for modern zombie movies, the characters have seen the same movies we have, and their reactions range from disbelief to being psyched–but it’s the musical angle that really stands out. In format this is a classic musical, with characters breaking out into song without it being all in their head or limited to background music, and many of the songs (by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly) are in classic holiday style, like the Phil Spector (and Mariah Carey)-like “Christmas Means Nothing Without You” and the seductive “It’s That Time of Year.” Your response to this will probably depend on your feelings about pop musicals in general, but it has a likable young cast and it puts them through the wringer: musical or not, it doesn’t pull its punches as a zombie movie.

Krampus (Michael Dougherty, 2015)

The best Christmas movies are often about doubt and the difficulty of keeping the flickering flame of belief alive during the coldest time of the year. Perhaps that’s why there has been a surplus of movies about the Krampus–the goat-like “shadow of St. Nicholas” who doles out punishment to misbehaving kids in Germany–in recent years. Or maybe it’s just that success invites imitators. Like Rare Exports, Michael Dougherty’s Krampus revives some of the old, pre-Christian spirit of the winter solstice, trapping its protagonist’s bickering family in a nightmarish Fimbulwinter, cut off from the rest of the world by a monster blizzard, while they are picked off one by one by twisted versions of Christmas toys and decorations. It sounds grim, but the darkness is leavened by a caustic sense of humor, roasting crass consumerism, keeping up with the Joneses, and awkward family get-togethers, and it wraps up with a sly “hell is other people” ending. I’m actually glad I watched this after the busiest part of Christmas was over–its acknowledgment of how stressful the holidays can be makes it the most realistic of the movies on this list.

My 2019 in Film: Top Ten

I expect to see this on the cover of a textbook about postmodernism some day.

I was going to beat my breast and confess that I didn’t see as many movies this year as I did last year as an excuse for why my list seemed so paltry, but I actually didn’t come up as short as I thought: last year I saw around fifty new releases, and this year I saw around forty, enough to make a list of favorites without feeling that I had missed too much of the good stuff to be credible. There are some films I didn’t get to that I would have liked to consider for inclusion, such as High Life, Jojo Rabbit, and Uncut Gems, but ultimately there were fewer that I regretted missing than last year. It was a busy year, and in the end I suppose I resigned myself to not seeing everything I might want to. (Even with new films on Netflix and other streaming services, I eventually just ran out of time in December to check them out.)

As I mentioned in my New Discoveries column, I began a Letterboxd account this year, mostly to keep a diary of first-time viewings, and while I didn’t write much in the way of reviews or ratings, it did make it easier for me to look back and see which of this year’s releases I had watched. (As always, for purposes of this list I am using U.S. release dates, so a few international productions show up on Letterboxd as being older; I’m including them anyway.)

So what kind of a year was it? I saw enough good-to-great films that it wasn’t hard at all to fill out a Top Ten (subjective and subject to change as such rankings may be), and I look forward to catching up with many that I missed. Some themes stick out: class-consciousness was a prominent concern in 2019, with many of my top picks reflecting rising awareness of (and frustration with) the growing divide between haves and have-nots. Surely related to this is my sense that climate change is out in the open even in the lightest of entertainment: in one way or another, movies as diverse as Crawl, Parasite, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Frozen II either have extreme weather as a plot element or seem to be driven by underlying climate anxiety.

One reason I wasn’t as hot on the killer-alligator movie Crawl as some others is that it completely disregarded the ways in which climate disasters disproportionately affect poor or marginalized communities: as in Parasite, living on high ground is one of the perks of wealth, and one’s geographical position can mean the difference between a cleansing shower and a catastrophic flood. One could argue that it isn’t the job of a thriller for casual audiences to tell such truths (and to be fair, it is a well-made and exciting film), but the way Crawl borrowed the experiences of Katrina survivors and centered them on a thoroughly middle-class white family felt, at the very least, as if it weren’t telling the whole story, and in this year especially, in which filmmakers have repeatedly married social commentary to dynamic and exciting genre moviemaking, it struck me as cowardly.

Ultimately, however, I don’t think my list is that reflective of the state of the film industry or the discourse surrounding it, which is dominated more than ever by big franchises, especially those now owned by Disney. As a consumer and a citizen, I don’t think any one company should have such a large market share; the bullying tactics theaters have reported, with Disney demanding ever-greater screen presence and cuts of ticket sales, at the expense of smaller films, is one obvious example, and the announced rolling back of the Paramount decrees, which have for decades prevented companies from owning both the studios that produce films and the theaters that show them, is ominous. (And for everyone excited about Disney’s purchase of Fox because it would allow the Avengers to finally share the screen with the X-Men, it’s worth recalling that they would never have been separated in the first place if it weren’t for the same kind of corporate skullduggery the fans are now cheering.) However, aside from concerns about their size, influence, or business practices, Disney has made some terrific entertainment, and they wouldn’t be in the position they’re in if they weren’t skilled at drawing in and pleasing audiences. I’m part of that audience, and thus part of the problem. That is a roundabout way of saying that I’m not excluding Disney products, or parts of the Marvel or Star Wars franchises, from my Top Ten list for political reasons.

I’m excluding them for artistic reasons.

Ha ha, just kidding. Actually, I enjoyed most of the superhero films on offer very much this year (the latest Star Wars is another matter, but I don’t know if I even want to get into it). Avengers: Endgame, which capped off the (at the time) twenty-two-film Marvel Cinematic Universe that began in 2008 with Iron Man, was both an impressive feat of production (in the organizational sense, not just the nuts and bolts of making the individual film) and a rousing and satisfying climax for the series. As I said after seeing it, fan service it may be, but consider this fan serviced. If, however, I didn’t see fit to include Endgame in my Top Ten list, it’s only partly because there were at least ten other films I thought more highly of. In the already-tiresome “are Marvel movies cinema or not?” argument, I’d say they most assuredly are: spectacle and morality play are genres that have been part of the cinema since the very beginning, and the Marvel movies fit within those traditions quite easily.

There is something to be said, however, for the idea that the long-running, multi-stranded narratives the MCU features are closer to what we have traditionally gotten from episodic television, and that much of the impact of Endgame‘s various comings and goings is due to the literal decade-plus we’ve spent with many of them. (Despite pejorative comments calling them empty, nothing but special effects, or theme park rides, most fans I know are more enthused by the characters and actors who portray them than by the action sequences, with each movie an opportunity to hang out with them; again, that’s more like Friends than, say, Independence Day.) There’s nothing wrong with that, but to me that’s the number one reason I sometimes have to remind myself to consider them in the same category as other films I’m ranking.

In any case, without further preamble, here are the movies that, at least today, I consider the ten best new releases I saw in 2019:

10. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (Mike Mitchell)

The Lego Movie was my favorite movie of 2014 and still one of my favorites of the decade; the cliffhanger on which it ended seemed like a joke as much as an actual dangling plot thread, but the notion that Finn, the boy whose imagination drove the action in the original film, had a little sister whom he might have to share with turned out to be enough to build a thoughtful plot upon about ideas of masculinity and the differences between boys’ and girls’ style of play. The fact that in the interim, Chris Pratt, the voice of Emmett, the main Lego character, had graduated from playing schlubs and transformed into a buff alpha-male leading man provided the perfect opportunity to spoof that image as Emmett comes face to face with Rex Dangervest (also Pratt), the man he thinks Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) wants him to be.

9. Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez)

A live-action adaptation of a manga I’ve never read? Apparently that is now one of my things. I don’t know how faithful Alita is to the original comics, but this tale of a cyborg warrior woman (Rosa Salazar with CGI-enlarged eyes) who doesn’t remember her past is the kind of lavishly-produced high-concept sci-fi that deserves to be seen on the big screen. The film could have ended stronger instead of teasing a sequel, but there are enough dazzling set-pieces, from a futuristic roller derby arena to a showdown in a club for bounty hunters, to scratch the effects-driven blockbuster itch, all of it anchored by soulful performances from Salazar and Christoph Waltz as her surrogate father.

8. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

I’ve missed out on Tarantino’s last few films–not because I’d stopped being a fan, exactly, but partially because I don’t live near a theater that could show them in 70mm, so the urgency that often helps me get to the movies on time was lost–so I’m probably not in a position to comment on the writer-director’s growth (or lack thereof) over his career. But in a way, the questions and thematic concerns his films always seem to engender–what’s he trying to say? Is this look at Hollywood on the cusp of generational change a salute to professionals, like Brad Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth? Or a lament for the perceived classiness of the old studio system, now that the hippies are in charge? Is its treatment of Bruce Lee racist? Or is it just about all those bare feet?–are beside the point, as moment-to-moment Once Upon A Time is thoroughly entertaining, a mesmerizing recreation of a particular place and time, a hang-out movie full of charismatic stars (Margot Robbie doesn’t have a lot to do as Sharon Tate, exactly, but the screen lights up when she appears, which I think is the point), and a mash-up of genres that continually surprises. As washed-up TV actor Rick Dalton, Leonardo DiCaprio unites all of these disparate threads (and gives Tarantino plenty of opportunities to recreate different styles of film and TV production) as he gropes toward a new phase in his career. As for the controversial ending, well, Tarantino gonna Tarantino.

7. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)

A clever inversion of classic teen movie formulas, Booksmart presents a pair of overachieving best friends (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) on the verge of graduating from high school, only to find that their years of staying on the straight and narrow haven’t given them the social or academic advantages they had hoped for. (At least one friend of mine found this angle hard to relate to, as the scene in which it’s revealed that the seeming underachievers are getting recruited to big tech companies or heading to Stanford struck him as hopelessly unrealistic even for the most privileged, but I think this is one of those elements that is meant to strike a chord with older, Gen-X audiences, who have had time to discover how little your high school achievements really predict future success, rather than the supposed teen demographic the movie appears to be pitched to; in any case, it’s not exactly a strictly realistic movie.) With one night to go, the pair seek to make up for lost time, veering from one party to another and discovering sides to their friends they hadn’t suspected and belatedly acknowledging truths about themselves and their own friendship. As in Good Boys, another of this year’s movies that takes a similar tack with a trio of sixth-grade boys, at the root of the comedy is the painful realization that growing up sometimes means growing apart and finding your own path.

6. Us (Jordan Peele)

Get Out was my favorite film of 2017; Peele’s follow-up, while less explicitly about race and more overtly surreal, still reads as a metaphor for America and its divisions (perhaps a little too neatly, with its repurposing of the “Hands Across America” iconography by a literal underclass and even its title: U S, get it?). But beyond the deliberate weirdness of the red jumpsuits and golden scissors, the rabbits and rabbit holes, Us is a compelling mixture of family comedy, home-invasion thriller, and sci-fi mystery, and probably the most actually-scary movie I saw this year. Lupita Nyong’o owns the screen in this one.

5. Knives Out (Rian Johnson)

A good old-fashioned murder mystery full of familiar stars is an easy sell (or so one would think), but perhaps Knives Out‘s success is in not being quite as old-fashioned as it appears. Sure, there’s the dapper detective (Daniel Craig with an amusing Southern drawl) and a range of suspects (including Chris Evans playing the bad boy again after his run as oh-so-decent Captain America), but the story doesn’t go quite where you might expect, and centering the story on outsider Marta (Ana de Armas), the victim’s faithful nurse, is a smart move, deepening the political subtext and putting Knives Out closer to something like Gosford Park than the Agatha Christie revival it superficially resembles.

4. Ready or Not (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett)

In a similar vein, but without even the pretense of good taste to hold back its class warfare theme, Ready or Not stars Samara Weaving as new bride Grace, married into an obscenely wealthy family. Since the Le Domas clan made their fortune on board games, every new member must play a game, randomly chosen, as a sort of initiation to be considered truly “one of the family.” When Grace draws “Hide and Seek,” she doesn’t realize at first that this is one game in which the family means business, and the result is a comic-horror cat-and-mouse take on The Most Dangerous Game. It’s a hoot, and it has a catchy theme song.

______________

3. In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

When I saw In Fabric in October, I wrote that “Peter Strickland has become a director whose films don’t always land 100% for me, but whose technique is so incredible and his fixations so resonant with me that they are must-see anyway.” Since writing those words, I’ve probably given more thought to In Fabric and looked forward to watching it again more than anything else on this list (it’s available to stream now, but I haven’t gotten around to rewatching it yet). Like a few entries on this list, this tale of a literal “killer dress” could be classified as comic horror, but it’s a comedy that explores the line between “funny ha ha” and “funny strange.”

2. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

This was another one I saw in October and even considered the best film I saw that month, and I still feel strongly about it. From the moment Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson appear together in an academy-ratio frame so cramped that it cuts off their sides, the theme of two men trapped together by work and the environment is reinforced by the direction and framing of the shots. By turns eerie, hilarious, and shocking, The Lighthouse is unlike anything else I saw this year.

1. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

Like several of the films on my list this year, Parasite begins as one thing–in this case, a comic caper about a desperate family of hustlers who worm their way into staff positions in the household of a wealthy tech executive–that turns into something else, crossing boundaries of genre and upsetting expectations in thrilling ways. It’s a film that is best approached without too much foreknowledge, but one that has rarely left my thoughts since I saw it in November.

Honorable mention: The internet and streaming has made it easier than ever to see short films and for filmmakers to make projects of whatever length they choose, and Netflix in particular this year released several medium-length shows that in the past probably would have been TV specials. My favorite of these was The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience (dir. Akiva Shaffer and Mike Diva), a half-hour “visual rap album” from The Lonely Island relating the rise and fall of sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire in 1980s Oakland. The emphasis is on “unauthorized,” as the special ironically celebrates steroid abuse and tacky overconsumption and stars Shaffer as Canseco and Andy Samberg as McGwire, any resemblance to their real-life subjects or even an athletic physique be damned. Like the group’s previous Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the excess is the point, and only barely less exaggerated than the supposedly more serious rap and pop projects they parody.

Not that bad: Serenity (dir. Steven Knight) must have been hard to advertise: the most interesting thing about it is its twist, but movie marketers and trailer editors are notoriously bad at finding the right line to divide “teasing” from “spoiling.” Actually, I’m not sure I even saw a trailer for this, but when I started hearing conflicting opinions about it and its “jaw-dropping” “rug-pull,” I felt obligated to check it out. Yes, you’ll probably catch on to what is happening to fishing-boat captain Matthew McConaughey as his reality seems to come unglued, even before old flame Anne Hathaway appears on his island to dredge up old memories. You could say it’s all a bit silly, especially if you’ve already seen better movies that play with the same concepts. But I dunno, it didn’t bore me, the scenery is pretty, and McConaughey and Hathaway are working their asses off to land this turkey. I’ve definitely seen worse movies this year.

Most Disappointing: Speaking of which, I’m not going to name The Dead Don’t Die (dir. Jim Jarmusch) the “worst” movie I saw in 2019–some of the other movies I would rank lower were just forgettable, and also I haven’t seen Cats yet–but it was certainly the most frustrating. Jarmusch has played with fantasy elements before, but a zombie movie, a genre that has seen many, many self-aware reinventions in the past couple of decades, needs to have more than just zombies moaning “coffee,” “wi-fi,” and “cable TV” instead of “brains” if it wants to be taken seriously in 2019. Of course, The Dead Don’t Die isn’t totally serious, including scenes of deadpan humor and metanarrative awareness–Adam Driver, as a small-town police officer partnered with Bill Murray, makes numerous references to the script and even recognizes the Sturgill Simpson-penned theme song when it comes on the radio–but its relative plotlessness keeps it from ever quite adding up to anything. Ultimately I agree with Outlaw Vern‘s contention that it’s the movie that most felt like life in 2019, frustrations, fears, and all, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it any more than I liked the year. For better or worse, The Dead Don’t Die absolutely counts as a climate change movie like the ones I discussed above: the film’s most original conceit is that “polar fracking” has knocked the earth off of its axis, leading to the zombie epidemic and other ecological disasters, but nobody can do much about it and the powers that be are determined to ignore it. Cowardly it is not, carrying things to their bleakest, most logical conclusion.

On that note, may 2020 be happier and more prosperous for us all, and thanks as always for reading this. My resolution for the new year is to get more writing done, including (insert prayer hands emoji) posting more regularly on this blog. Here’s to better days!

My 2019 in Books

Another year of reading has come and gone; this year has felt so long that I can hardly believe some of the books I read in the spring and summer were part of the same year as this fall. Well, I guess that’s why I started keeping track–so I could remember and keep my thoughts sorted. For the most part, my fiction reading ran toward the pulpier and bloodier, while my non-fiction choices were all over the map. As always, I’m only including books and graphic novels I read from cover to cover, so individual issues of comics, magazine articles, and other short reading are not included.

January

The Ninja, Eric Van Lustbader

Wicked Wichita, Joe Stumpe

Wichita Jazz and Vice Between the World Wars, Joshua L. Yearout

February

Hot Summer, Cold Murder, Gaylord Dold

I never met Gaylord Dold, but I occasionally shared space with him in the pages of the Wichita Eagle when I was reviewing the Wichita Symphony and he was reviewing books. His series of detective novels starring private eye Mitch Roberts (of which Hot Summer, Cold Murder is the first) caught my attention because they are set in Wichita in the 1950s; following up two non-fiction examinations of my adopted hometown’s history with Dold’s fictional treatment seemed natural. I was amused to discover that Roberts lived across the street from Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on Sycamore Street, almost exactly where my friend Bill grew up and still lived when I met him in college. Dold passed away in 2018, and Lawrence-Dumont also saw its last season of baseball before being torn down that year. Thus do fixtures of the present recede into the past before our eyes; Century II, Wichita’s downtown performing arts center (and home of the aforementioned Symphony) is probably next on the chopping block. Sigh.

The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, Glen Weldon

Marshal Law, Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill, et al

The Tomb, F. Paul Wilson

March

The Touch, F. Paul Wilson

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, Georgina Howell

Reborn, F. Paul Wilson

Reprisal, F. Paul Wilson

April

Nightworld, F. Paul Wilson

I read Wilson’s The Keep last year; this year I followed up with the rest of the author’s Adversary Cycle. It’s clear that The Keep, The Tomb, and The Touch were written independently, but Reborn, Reprisal, and Nightworld do a decent job of bringing their settings and characters together. Nightworld, the conclusion to this epic multi-generational fantasy, is so bizarre that I wonder how it would strike a reader picking it up for the first time without having read the preceding installments. It is Wilson’s take on the apocalyptic theme several genre authors toyed with in the mid-’80s, like Stephen King’s The Stand or (I gather) Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, and the earth plunging into an eternal night, against all known astronomical laws, is just the beginning.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, John Carreyrou

Mister Miracle, Tom King, Mitch Gerads, et al

Super Mario Bros. 2, Jon Irwin

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Who is Scorpio?, Jim Steranko et al

Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal, Jeffrey J. Kripal

May

The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard

Cutie Honey a Go Go!, Shimpei Itoh

I watched the live-action Cutie Honey movie last year and included it in my New Discoveries column, but before that I wasn’t familiar with the character or the manga she starred in at all; this book isn’t the original manga by series creator Go Nagai, but an adaptation of that same live-action film. However, it barely resembles the movie, veering off into a subplot about a sinister girls’ boarding school before returning to the main thread in the last few pages and ending on a cliffhanger. I’ve read plenty of adaptations that depart from the film, either because they were based on an earlier version of the screenplay or because the author seeks to flesh things out in a more novelistic way, but this is something else entirely. In an apologetic afterword, Itoh explains that he had hoped to add elements from the original manga to his adaptation as a tribute to Nagai, but when the serialized strip was canceled he ran out of space and time. “I suck,” he writes. Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it.

Doctor Sax, Jack Kerouac

Speaking of adaptations, I first became acquainted with this work in an audio adaptation including the voices of Jim Carroll, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other emeriti of the Beat movement, but I had never read the original book. A digressive, fantastic exploration of Kerouac’s childhood populated by ghosts, vampires, and the enigmatic title character, part Jean Shepherd and part Weird Tales, it’s a reminder that the Beats had roots in pulpier sensibilities.

Die Kitty Die: Heaven and Hell, Dan Parent and Fernando Ruiz

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, Michelle McNamara

June

The Shepherd of the Hills, Harold Bell Wright

Lady into Fox, David Garnett

The Complete Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume Three: Century, Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill, et al

July

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill, et al

Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

The Gunslinger, Stephen King

Earlier this year I found almost the entire Dark Tower series at a thrift store, missing only one volume (which I later found at the very same store), allowing me to buy the whole series for less than ten dollars. Having polished off F. Paul Wilson’s Adversary Cycle (see above), I figured it was time to tackle another monumental epic of dark fantasy. I doubt I would have made this attempt even a few years ago, but as I mentioned at Halloween, my opinion of King has done a neat 180 over the years, and I’m not one to turn down a find when it comes packaged so conveniently.

August

The Drawing of the Three, Stephen King

September

The Waste Lands, Stephen King

Original Fake, Kirstin Cronn-Mills, art by E. Eero Johnson

Shoot: A Valentino Mystery, Loren D. Estleman

October

The Monk, Matthew G. Lewis

November

Nightmare Abbey, Thomas Love Peacock

Crotchet Castle, Thomas Love Peacock

December

The Druids, Stuart Piggott

As for what’s next: well, after a break I returned to The Dark Tower and am partway through the fourth volume, Wizard and Glass, but I don’t expect to finish that by the end of the year. Beyond that series, I have plenty of books to choose from; as usual, I’ll let my ever-shifting interests guide me in the new year. Happy reading!

In Praise of Maximum Overdrive (and 34½ other films): Spooktober 2019

Happy day after Halloween! October this year was another busy month, but between work, church, and family activities I explored a variety of Halloween-themed media. For the first time I experimented with a daily Twitter update, sharing “31 Days of #SpookyMusic” (see my Twitter feed for links). I’ve created Halloween playlists and mix CDs in the past, but this selection was more of a sampler from a variety of genres than a single playlist, as I didn’t choose songs based on their flow or stylistic affinity. The weather here in Kansas was variable enough this month that I could veer from the warm-weather spookiness of Lee Morse singing “‘Tain’t No Sin (To Dance Around in Your Bones)” to Yoko Ono’s eerie “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand in the Snow)”; other songs and pieces of music were drawn from a variety of pop music, film and television, video game, and classical music sources.

And of course I watched as many movies as I could fit in. Once again the only unifying theme was “this pile of unwatched movies on my shelf.” In addition to going through the DVDs and Blu-rays I’d accumulated during the year, I streamed a few on Netflix, Prime, and Night Flight. I also saw several movies on the big screen, including several as part of the annual October at the Oldtown retro horror series, and a couple of new releases; In Fabric was shown as part of the Tallgrass Film Festival.

October has become the month in which I watch the most movies by far: it’s partly because the post-October wrap-up has become a reliable blog entry, something for me to post. It’s also fun being part of several horror-themed discussion groups on Facebook, seeing what everyone else is watching and being part of that conversation. I don’t approach the numbers of films that some fans watch, but it is satisfying to take some discs out of the “unwatched” pile and check off some previously unseen classics from my list. More than that, it’s the media equivalent of gorging on candy; the excess is part of the point of the season. So, without further preamble, here are the films I took in during the month of October, the sweet and the sour:

1. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982) *

2. Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2007)

3. Survival of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2009)

4. Dead & Buried (Gary Sherman, 1981)

5. The Wasp Woman (Roger Corman, 1959)

6. The Power (Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow, 1984)

7. Blood Mania (Robert Vincent O’Neill, 1970)

8. Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)*

9. Maximum Overdrive (Stephen King, 1986)*, **

10. Point of Terror (Alex Nicol, 1971)

11. The God Inside My Ear (Joe Badon, 2019)

12. The Vampire Doll (Michio Yamamoto, 1970)

13. Lake of Dracula (Michio Yamamoto, 1971)

14. Evil of Dracula (Michio Yamamoto, 1974)

15. Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)

16. Beyond the Gates (Jackson Stewart, 2016)

17. Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)*

18. Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019)*

19. The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman, 1971)

20. In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2018)*

21. Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014)

22. Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988), **

23. Zombieland: Double Tap (Ruben Fleischer, 2019)*

24. Saint Bernard (Gabe Bartalos, 2013)

25. I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I. (Marius Penczner, 1982)

26. Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)*

27. Fade to Black (Vernon Zimmerman, 1980)

28. Mayhem (Joe Lynch, 2017)

29. The War of the Gargantuas (Ishiro Honda, 1966)

30. Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik, 1983)

31. Velvet Buzzsaw (Dan Gilroy, 2019)

32. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019)*

33. A Cure For Wellness (Gore Verbinski, 2016)

34. Ghostwatch (Lesley Manning, 1992)

35. The Pit (Lew Lehman, 1981)

35½. Monsters Crash the Pajama Party (David L. Hewitt, 1965)

(This one was only 30 minutes long, originally a “spook show” in which costumed actors would invade the theater and interact with the audience during the film, a William Castle-like gimmick that would have played alongside other features at the time; it made a fitting cap to the month’s viewing.)

* theatrical screening

** rewatch

Best Movie: There were several very good films I watched this year, including the original Poltergeist (a film I’d been too scared to finish as a kid, although now much of it seems downright playful). The most impressive overall was The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as lighthouse keepers trapped together on a remote island. Like writer-director Robert Eggers’ previous film, The Witch, this is historically-informed, atmospheric horror, drawing on documents from the past to build up the dialogue. I enjoyed The Witch, but The Lighthouse is more assured in every way, and the creepiness of the premise (involving mermaids, bad omens, and the secret of the lighthouse’s lamp) is the stuff of classic weird tales.

Worst Movie: It’s often interesting when special effects artists make their own movies, because plot and logic can take a back seat to whatever crazy visuals the filmmakers feel like cooking up. Saint Bernard (by Gabe Bartalos, FX man for Frank Henenlotter and Matthew Barney, among others) shows the downside of that, however: in the film, an orchestra conductor (Jason Dugre) experiences an existential crisis and carries a severed dog’s head as he wanders from one elaborate set to another, mostly as an excuse for trite symbolism. (In an early scene, the protagonist raises his arm to conduct a piece and a bunch of drugs fall out of his jacket; later, a greedy preacher sees the hero as wearing a suit made of dollar bills and chases him from the church trying to grab them; the hero ends up on Wall Street where passersby strip him of his money suit.) Despite some interesting scenes and images, there is very little forward momentum, and it feels much longer than its 97 minutes. The inadvertent message of all this is that film, like music, is an art that unfolds in time: if you want to make installation art, you should really just do that.

Weirdest Movie: Peter Strickland has become a director whose films don’t always land 100% for me, but whose technique is so incredible and his fixations so resonant with me that they are must-see anyway. As Berberian Sound Studio (also watched this month) channels Italian giallo and The Duke of Burgundy borrows from European softcore of the late ’60s and ’70s, so In Fabric, about a cursed “arterial red” dress, suggests the horror anthologies of the early ’70s such as From Beyond the Grave, with their interlocking stories of terrors lurking beneath the mundane surfaces of modern Britain. The main part of the plot follows one of the dress’s unfortunate buyers, divorcée Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who finds the price tag (and the incomprehensible jargon of the saleswoman, Fatma Mohamed) impossible to resist during a large department store’s seasonal sale. There is quite a bit of dry and absurd humor, much of it local in nature but still apparent. Large swathes of the film are deliberately abstract or cryptic and don’t make things easy for the audience, but there is no attempt to elide the B-movie premise. Strickland seems to understand how goofy scenes of the dress wriggling off of its hanger, crawling across the floor on its own, and floating in mid-air while its owner sleeps are, but having had nightmares of similar scenarios as a young child during the time period in which he has set his film, I think he’s on to something. A throwaway scene, late in the movie, proposes a childhood origin for one character’s erotic interest in tights; like much of the rest of In Fabric, it suggests that Strickland is either an unreconstructed Freudian, or at least he has found Freudianism a useful language for his art.

Scariest Movie: On Halloween night in 1992, the BBC broadcast a supposed live investigation of a poltergeist haunting in suburban London, casting real-life children’s presenter Sarah Greene as the on-site host while genial Michael Parkinson held down the studio, interviewing experts on the paranormal and fielding calls from the audience. As with Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast and The Blair Witch Project, the attempts at verisimilitude worked all too well, and many viewers took the proto-reality TV special for an actual report. Even at this distance and knowing that it’s fiction, Ghostwatch pulls its tricks incredibly smoothly, building from odd but explicable anomalies to all-out terror in the haunted house–and in the studio. I can only imagine what this must have been like when it was shown.

Least Scary Movie: Actually, only a few of the movies I watched this October were capital-S Scary. One might expect this year’s genre outlier, Ad Astra, a relatively hard science fiction movie, to be the least scary, but what could be scarier than the prospect of growing old and being alone in the universe (not to mention the risk of a crazed research primate chewing your face off)? Leaving aside kids’ movies like Beetlejuice and The War of the Gargantuas, I’d like to focus on a pair of movies starring Peter Carpenter, Blood Mania and Point of Terror. In both films, Carpenter (apparently the driver behind both projects) plays a charismatic, irresistible lover of women who gets in over his head, and like all film noir patsies, he pays for his previous transgressions; there’s a Joe Sarno-like disgust at the hedonism depicted, even as the film keeps it coming. Given their titles and posters, I fully expected these films to fit into the Spooktober spirit, but it would be more accurate to describe them as erotic thrillers. Blood Mania at least builds up to a climax that justifies its title, but Point of Terror just isn’t that kind of movie. A flashback to a giallo-style murder couldn’t be more than a minute or two, and the rest of the violence in the movie is purely emotional. Blood Mania and Point of Terror aren’t bad movies at all, but based on their misleading marketing I’m calling Point of Terror the Least Scary. If Point of Terror is a horror movie, Basic Instinct is a horror movie.

Goriest Movie(s): Late in his life, George Romero expressed frustration that he couldn’t get projects financed unless they involved zombies, and some of that boredom comes through in the last two entriees in his “living dead” series, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. In the first, a group of student filmmakers are making a monster movie that turns into a documentary as a mysterious zombie epidemic emerges (that distinguishes Diary from the first four Dead movies, which roughly trace the collapse of civilization). Romero was clearly interested in commenting on the new media landscape and “citizen journalism,” and he has a few things to say about filmmaking and the state of contemporary horror (“dead things move slowly”), but the zombie stuff revisits all the greatest hits: loved ones turning, good old boys and rogue authority figures who are the real monsters, disenfranchised minorities given a chance to be in a charge, and even a clown zombie. It’s uninspired, but serviceable.

By contrast, Survival seems like it would be better without any zombie business in it at all, giving Romero free reign to make the magic-realist Western he appears to have had in mind (but then of course it wouldn’t have been made at all). The film centers on two families feuding on an isolated island. One side sees the cold logic in putting down the zombies, even if they were once loved ones; the other holds on to them, corralling them into stables in the hopes of curing them one day, or at least training them to eat something other than human flesh. In the previous Dead films, a dividing line between the living heroes and villains is how they treat the dead, with the bad guys using them as sport or slave labor or scientific experiments, revealing their own inhumanity. Survival touches on that theme, and in fact makes it the central point of the conflict, but that thoughtfulness is at odds with with the inventive ways the protagonists dispatch the zombies, like in a slasher sequel trying to up the ante with more and more outlandish kills.

Funniest Movie: Speaking of sequels upping the ante and dispatching zombies in creative ways . . . well, I laughed a lot at Zombieland: Double Tap.

Most Fun at the Movies: I also laughed a lot at Maximum Overdrive, a rewatch that was part of a “Stephen King killer car double feature” with Christine. Readers of this blog have seen me gradually turn from a Stephen King skeptic to a fan over the years, and stuff like Maximum Overdrive is part of the reason why. King’s only directorial effort, the film is based on his short story “Trucks,” about a mysterious revolt by the machines of Earth against their human masters. King made a trailer in which he directly addresses the audience, infamously declaring “I’m gonna scare the hell out of you”; Maximum Overdrive doesn’t live up to that threat, at all: how could it? But it’s a hoot nonetheless. Sometimes when reading King’s books, you recall that he was an English teacher, that he has written intelligently about literature and the writing process, that he knows what he is talking about. Maximum Overdrive isn’t the work of Mr. King, man of letters. It’s the work of Uncle Steve the trash-hound, enthusiastic reader of EC horror comics and watcher of B-movies, the slightly disreputable older relative who shows you his scars and tattoos and has a story behind each of them, who will happily loan you the movies they won’t rent to you at the mom-and-pop video store, or failing that will lovingly describe the best parts to you. From the moment King appears in a cameo as a bank customer being called an asshole by the ATM (in the trademark “loudmouthed townie” persona he used whenever he showed up in his buddy Romero’s movies), to the shots of stuntmen ecstatically flying through windshields, to the generous use of blood squibs as people are riddled with bullets, it is clear: this is the work of a fan who is thrilled to finally have his hands on the controls. Looking back at his small role in the film, Giancarlo Esposito complimented King’s direction, saying, “He certainly directed me beautifully. I’ll never forget when I was shaken to death at the game machine, and he wanted me to shake harder and shake more.”

Shake harder. Shake more. I can’t think of any wiser words to leave you with as we say farewell to Halloween 2019.

Fates Worse Than Death: The Phantom Creeps

Dr. Alex Zorka, one of the world’s most brilliant scientific minds–the most brilliant, according to him–is a proud man. The sacrifices he has made for his work, the depth of his genius, and above all his monumental ego will not allow him to countenance turning over his fabulous inventions to the government–not even on the eve of war, when the world is about to become much more dangerous. Zorka’s wife, Ann, has tried to convince him to turn back before his research takes him too far, even bringing his former partner, Dr. Mallory, to help plead the case. Zorka’s latest invention consists of a small disc that can be planted anywhere (or on anyone), and a mechanical spider that homes in on it; when the spider comes into contact with its target, a small burst of smoke paralyzes anyone within range with a unique form of suspended animation. Mallory urges Zorka to give the disc technology to the government, but Zorka already has a buyer lined up; what they choose to do with it is of no concern to him. Gloating later to his assistant, Monk (an ex-con Zorka freed and disguised, making him indebted to him and practically a slave), Zorka shows off his latest device, a “devisualizer” belt that renders its wearer invisible. “Now, as the Phantom, there is nothing that I cannot do.” Zorka’s pride is already tipping into megalomania, and he hasn’t even revealed his killer robot to the world!

After Dr. Zorka disappears (into a secret laboratory hidden in his house) and then fakes his own death, Captain Bob West of military intelligence gets involved, interviewing Ann Zorka and Dr. Mallory. A nosy reporter, Jean Drew, shows up, but West stonewalls her. When West and his partner Jim Daly load Ann into a plane to take her to identify her husband’s body, Jean stows away, hoping for a scoop. None of them realize that Dr. Zorka, invisible, has planted one of the magnetic discs on the plane with the idea of paralyzing his wife and then claiming her body (under a new identity) to keep her from talking to the authorities. The plan backfires, paralyzing Daly while he’s piloting the plane and causing a deadly crash. Ann dies, and in his grief and madness Zorka blames West and the government. “They shall pay!” he rants in one of his many diatribes. The stage is set for Dr. Zorka to wreak scientific vengeance while outmaneuvering both the G-men and the foreign agents who still hope to obtain his invention.

His final serial appearance, The Phantom Creeps stars the great Bela Lugosi in full scenery-chewing mode as Dr. Zorka. From the beginning, Zorka’s main emotional note is aggrievement: his scientific peers don’t appreciate his genius, he doesn’t owe anything to the government, they’ll see, he’ll show them all, blah blah blah. It’s a character type that was as much Lugosi’s bread and butter as the suave vampire that brought his initial fame. After Zorka’s wife dies and his various plots are foiled, his mania becomes more and more pronounced and his goals proceed from selling his invention for riches to conquering the world, or, failing that, destroying it. The only character he regularly interacts with is poor, put-upon Monk (Jack C. Smith), who follows him out of fear as much as any sense of loyalty. Constantly complaining that he’ll be caught and thrown back into Alcatraz (“It’s where you belong,” Zorka answers dismissively), Monk waits for the opportunity to sell out his boss, and he almost turns the tables more than once before Zorka gets the upper hand again. It is to Monk (and thereby indirectly the audience) that Zorka explains his various devices, revealing the highly volatile element that powers his inventions: the element is deadly unless kept in a shielded box, and even when opened a crack to siphon off its energies it emits deadly fumes. “They must never know about you, the source of all my power,” Zorka says to the box lovingly. But of course “they” do find out, and the box becomes the main MacGuffin of the plot, changing hands between the spies, the G-men, and back to Zorka as they all scheme to hold on to it.

It is perhaps not surprising that the best-known element of this serial is not the precious element in its box or the invisibility device that inspired its title, but the robot (or “iron man”) who serves as Zorka’s guardian and sometimes attack dog. Inside the robot costume is 7’4″ Ed Wolff, a former circus performer who specialized in giant roles. The robot’s appearance is, on one level, ridiculous, a large humanoid machine with a grotesque molded face on an oversized head, a design choice that goes against our usual idea of robots as being more streamlined than their human models (perusing illustrations of early attempts at building robots reveals that many designs made up in baroque style what they lacked in functionality). But however ugly, it is clearly the most visually distinct element in the film. To be charitable, it resembles a pagan idol, and its role in the story is akin to that of a temple guardian, never leaving its one room until the very end of the serial. If serials are part of the modern mythmaking machinery by which ancient fables are dressed anew in contemporary garb (and I think they are), it makes sense that the iron man would continue the lineage of such pre-Enlightenment automatons as the golem or Talos, the bronze warrior from Greek mythology. (Surprisingly, Zorka doesn’t end up dying at the hands of the iron man, an ironic comeuppance that would have been perfectly in line with this kind of storytelling; the robot remains under control to the end. Zorka’s fate is a little more, ahem, explosive.)

The dynamic of the square-jawed hero (Robert Kent as West) and the gutsy reporter who will take any risk for a story (Dorothy Arnold as Jean Drew) is one that has shown up in many serials and pulp narratives (including the other Lugosi serial I’ve covered, Shadow of Chinatown). Filmmakers in the ’30s and ’40s seem to have loved brassy “girl reporters,” partially as a career choice open to independent women that allowed for zany adventures and partially for the opportunity for more level-headed male characters to put them in their place. The Phantom Creeps patronizes Jean an average amount I’d say, with Bob West tweaking her resolve with comments like, “That isn’t like a hard-boiled newspaper girl to faint!”

At least West is motivated by official secrecy to keep her silent, urging Jean to keep details to herself even as her editor hounds her for something fit to print. West’s partner Daly (Regis Toomey) seems more irritated by having a girl nosing around and becomes especially suspicious when he observes Jean leaving a warehouse to which he had trailed the spies (caught unawares by them, she had posed as a fellow operative, hoping to find Zorka’s invention and sell it herself). “Save it for Captain West,” he says: “He likes fairy stories.” Finally, when Jean is rewarded for her cooperation with the story of her career, West compliments Jean’s restraint by saying, “The hardest job for a reporter is the suppression of timely news.” In other words: loose lips sink ships.

The spies, to whom Zorka had initially hoped to sell his invention and who later try to steal it outright, have a few nice touches. The only one of the field agents who has much personality, Rankin (Anthony Averill), is sort of a spearhead villain, indistinguishable from a typical movie gangster, but the head of the spy ring, Jarvis (Edward Van Sloan) is a bit more of a character. The spies maintain an “International School of Languages” as a cover, from which they broadcast cryptic coded messages by radio. As is frequently the case, the spies’ foreign superiors go unnamed except for vague mentions of a “leader” or occasionally “His Highness.” I wonder which foreign governments they might have been thinking of in 1939? I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out this incredible flying costume Jarvis wears in Chapter Four (“Invisible Terror”) during a brief moment when the spies are in possession of the box and try to fly it out of the country.

The Phantom Creeps has many elements that I love in the serials: crazy gadgets, distinctive visuals, colorful characters, and a great villain. The tone, from the ominous theme music to the shadowed interiors of Zorka’s mad science lab (full of Kenneth Strickfaden’s whirling, sparking electrical contraptions) is closer to Universal’s famous monster series than the typical action serials of the day. There is also plenty of drama to be mined in the confrontations of the individual characters and their competing goals; even the small-time spies and beat cops get little character moments as they deal with the unknown menace of the “Phantom.” So I really wish I liked it more, and it saddens me to report that these promising parts rarely coalesce into a satisfying whole.

It’s hard to put my finger on why it fell short for me. Part of the problem is that there is just too much going on: too many characters, too many of whom change their behavior or loyalties depending on the scene in order to keep the story going. The way the action returns again and again to a few locations makes it feel like it’s spinning its wheels (considering that Zorka’s robot never leaves his house, where it is hidden behind a sliding panel, it’s surprising how much use it gets, since characters keep finding reasons to go back there). The ways in which the characters encounter each other are often dependent on coincidence: one might think there was only one road in California for the number of times characters pass and recognize each other, setting off yet another chase (“There go two of the spies in that car!” is a typical line of dialogue). I guess it comes down to too much filler, not enough killer.

There is also the general shabbiness that many serials display, amplified by the sense that The Phantom Creeps is made up of bits and pieces thrown together or borrowed from other productions. Other serials have featured invisible characters and made them spookily effective, but only a few scenes in this truly use the “Phantom” conceit in a thrilling or atmospheric way. (The invisibility effect is little more than a double-exposed smudge of light, or occasionally a shadow.)

The use of stock footage to ramp up the threats to our heroes also becomes excessive (and familiar–it surely doesn’t help that I’ve seen this boat crash, that building fire, and even that shot of the Hindenburg disaster in other serials) as it approaches its literally cataclysmic finale. Or perhaps it’s simply how generic everything seems; one of the best parts of The Phantom Creeps is a short flashback in which Dr. Zorka reveals the mysterious radioactive element that powers all of his inventions: it fell to earth in Africa as a meteorite centuries ago, where it lay buried in the ground until Dr. Zorka arrived to dig it up. The visual of Zorka in a protective hazmat suit, lowered into a crevice by native bearers and chipping the sparking, smoking stone from the rock is specific to the story in a way that too much of it simply lacks (wouldn’t you know it, that sequence turns out to be lifted from the 1936 Lugosi/Karloff feature The Invisible Ray).

What I Watched: The Phantom Creeps (Universal, 1939)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from VCI’s “Classic Cliffhanger Collection”

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “To Destroy the World” (Chapter Twelve)

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Eleven (“The Blast”), spies Jarvis and Rankin have taken off in their car with the meteorite (and, unbeknownst to them, Zorka in his invisible state); spotting them, West and Jean follow, with Jean driving. Jarvis pulls up at a barricade: the road is closed for blasting, but the workers let the car through. The workers continue preparation for blasting, and because of a faulty detonation plunger one of them lights a long fuse. Just then, West and Jean drive up and spot the barricade. “It may be a trick to stop us,” West says, instructing Jean to keep driving. Despite the protests of the workmen, they drive through the barricade; mere moments later–kaboom!

Breaking news: Like many serials, especially those featuring reporter characters, The Phantom Creeps has some great on-screen newspaper headlines for quick bursts of exposition.

SCIENTIST AND WIFE MEET DEATH SAME DAY IN DIFFERENT ACCIDENTS!

MAD GENIUS RUNNING WILD!

ZORKA SHAKES CONTINENT AS HE PLUNGES TO HIS DEATH

Don’t forget the funny pages: The Phantom Creeps was adapted (very freely) in an issue of Movie Comics; the publication retouched frames from the movies, turning them into comic panels. The eight-page story takes liberties from the very first page, putting Zorka’s laboratory in an old castle instead of a house, and in this version “Phantom” is the robot’s name. Some things never change. The entire story can be read at the blog Four-Color Shadows.

Sample Dialogue:

Monk (invisible, having stolen Zorka’s devisualizer belt): I’m free, Dr. Zorka! I’m stronger than you now! Stronger than the police! You’ll never make a slave out of me again. Ha ha ha!

[Zorka zaps Monk with a “Z-ray” and makes him reappear, briefly incapacitating him]

Zorka: You traitor! You didn’t know that you too had been sprayed with my invisible gas. Get up on your feet! . . . You belong to me! You can never escape me! Go!

–Chapter Seven, “The Menacing Mist”

What Others Have Said: “The contribution of The Phantom Creeps to later serials was an auto chase in which a 1939 black Nash pursued an ancient touring car. The appearance of a vintage vehicle in a chase was a sure sign that sooner or later it would go over a cliff and burn. New cars didn’t match those in crashes in the stock-film library, and stock shots were meant to last many years.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

What’s Next: For what will probably be the last installment of this series for the summer, let’s check out the proto-Raiders adventure, Secret Service in Darkest Africa aka Manhunt in the African Jungles!

My 2018 in Books

This year I didn’t read as many books as in previous years, but several that I did were longer novels that took longer to get through. No matter how old I get or how many books I read, I’ll admit that I sometimes feel a bit of trepidation when I start reading a long book in earnest: will I have the time to dedicate to it, or will I get lost in it, becoming confused and leaving it unfinished? Will it be worth the time it takes to read? What if it just stinks? Oddly, the book that took me the longest to finish this year wasn’t even that long: I don’t usually read more than one book at a time, but this summer I started reading Jane Austen’s Emma at home while also carrying around a beat-up copy of F. Paul Wilson’s horror novel The Keep to read at the pool. As you can see from the log below, I limped along for months with Emma before I finished it; I’m not sure if that’s due to the book itself–I breezed through two Austen novels last year–or the circumstances under which I read it. As usual, I’m not counting single issues of comic books, magazine articles, tweets, etc. If it’s not between two covers, it’s not here.

January

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me, ed. Alfred Hitchcock (probably in actuality Robert Arthur; includes the novel Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham)

The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies Volume 1: 1954-1982 (Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition), John LeMay

February

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (This was my mother’s copy, which I borrowed)

World’s Funnest, Evan Dorkin et al

Two Women in the Klondike (abridged), Mary E. Hitchcock

March

Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, Cathy Gere

Saturn’s Children, Charles Stross

April

America vs. The Justice Society, Roy Thomas et al

Wonderful World, Javier Calvo (trans. by Mara Faye Lethem)

Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination, Edogawa Rampo (trans. by James B. Harris)

Talking ‘Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap, Elijah Wald

May

The Terror, Dan Simmons

I haven’t watched AMC’s television adaptation, but the chatter around it reminded me that I’d had this book on my shelves for some time–enough years that it still had a Borders price sticker on it–and hadn’t read it. Its length and historical detail reminded me of something I heard about the best-sellers of yesteryear being packed with information–about the history of a place, or the details of running a particular business, like the novels of James Michener and Arthur Hailey–so that readers could feel that they were learning something, and thus putting the time spent reading to good use instead of being “merely” entertained.

Mandrake the Magician Dailies Volume 1: The Cobra, Lee Falk and Phil Davis

June

Heartburst, Rick Veitch

The Keep, F. Paul Wilson

July

Red Barry, “Undercover Man” Volume 1, Will Gould (Still waiting for Volume 2)

August

Emma, Jane Austen

Made to Kill, Adam Christopher

September

Paperbacks From Hell, Grady Hendrix

Gremlins, “A Novel by George Gipe Based on a Screenplay Written by Chris Columbus”

Dick Tracy, “A Novel by Max Allan Collins Based on the screenplay by Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr., and Bo Goldman & Warren Beatty”

1941: The Illustrated Story, “By Stephen Bissette and Rick Veitch, Adapted by Allan Asherman, Introduction by Stephen Spielberg”

Yes, I spent much of this month reading movie adaptations; I’ve read a few over the years, although they’ve never been a huge part of my reading, even when they were more popular and I was in the target age for movie tie-ins. I had wanted to read Gremlins for a while, having heard that the novelization had added background information and history about the mogwai; there wasn’t quite as much as I had hoped, although part of the story is told from Gizmo’s point of view, which is interesting. The novelization of Warren Beatty’s 1990 Dick Tracy adaptation also fortuitously came my way; written by longtime crime novelist and Dick Tracy writer Max Allan Collins, the book feels more like a “real” novel than you might expect.

As for the graphic novel adaptation of Stephen Spielberg’s 1941, I had noticed that original copies could still be had for just a few dollars through Heavy Metal‘s online store, so how could I resist picking one up? The graphic novel matches the movie’s irreverent (and sometimes offensive) sense of humor with a free-wheeling collage approach that pairs cut-up posters and ads from the 1940s with riotous, Mad- and National Lampoon-inspired asides and sight gags. It feels like a product of a different time, and the fact that new copies are still available makes me wonder just how big the print run must have been back in 1980.

October

Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury

A Night in the Lonesome October, Roger Zelazny (reread)

True Indie: Life and Death in Film Making, Don Coscarelli

Kraken, China Miéville

November

The Great White Space, Basil Copper

The House of Cthulhu: Tales of the Primal Land, Volume I, Brian Lumley

Secrets of the Ninja, Ashida Kim

The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art, Stephen K. Hayes

The last two titles listed (as well as a longer book I’ve been reading most of this month) are preparation for an upcoming theme event in January–or should I say, Ninjanuary? Stay tuned!

Halloween 2018 Roundup

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It is once again the last day of October, and as always I am here to report on what I have been doing with my time in activities both spooky and spoopy. October was quite a busy month for me this year, and I consciously made an effort to keep some balance in my life (I even read some books, including such seasonal fare as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and a reread of Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October). After last year’s high-water mark of watching thirty-nine films, I felt glutted with movies, as if I had gorged all month long. Sure, there are many fans who watch more movies than that in October, but for me that is a lot. So while I kept track of my viewing, and took advantage of screening opportunities when I could, I wanted to keep my goals reasonable, watching thirty-one films. Imagine my surprise when I reached the weekend before Halloween with only a couple left to go, necessitating some tough choices: what would be left out?

My screening of Dawn of the Dead in 3-D was scheduled for last night, so I decided to make that movie no. 31. I go back and forth on which of Romero’s Dead trilogy is my favorite, but seeing Dawn on the big screen, and with a beautiful (and until now rarely-seen) 3-D conversion, made it a fitting culmination to my Halloween pregaming.

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This year I didn’t approach my viewing with much of a plan, other than working my way through the pile of unwatched movies I already own and checking out the offerings at the Regal Horrorfest (formerly October at the Oldtown) organized by Leif Jonker and Big Screen Wichita. The resulting list is less diverse than in some years, with over a third from the 1980s and nothing from earlier than the 1960s. There was also very little foreign film on my list this year. On the other hand, it’s been a boom year for new horror, and I watched more films from the current year than in past Octobers, both in theaters and catching up with films released earlier in the year on home video.

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1. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)
2. Evil Dead 2 (Sam Raimi, 1987)*, **
3. Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1992)**
4. Happy Death Day (Christopher Landon, 2017)
5. Puppet Master II (David Allen, 1990)
6. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (Don Coscarelli, 1994)
7. Phantasm IV: Oblivion (Don Coscarelli, 1998)
8. Chopping Mall (Jim Wynorski, 1986)
9. Hell Fest (Gregory Plotkin, 2018)*
10. House of the Damned (Maury Dexter, 1963)
11. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)*
12. Venom (Ruben Fleischer, 2018)*
13. Horror Hotel aka The City of the Dead (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1960)
14. The Devil’s Bride aka The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1968)
15. Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, 2013)
16. A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018)
17. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)*, **
18. Slaughterhouse Rock (Dimitri Logothetis, 1988)
19. Hellbent (Richard Casey, 1988)
20. Blood Diner (Jackie Kong, 1987)
21. Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)
22. The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)*
23. C.H.U.D. (Douglas Cheek, 1984)*
24. C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud (David Irving, 1989)
25. Waxwork (Anthony Hickox, 1988)
26. Winchester (Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, 2018)
27. Paganini Horror (Luigi Cozzi, 1989)
28. The Midnight Hour (Jack Bender, 1985)
29. The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick, 1993)*, **
30. John Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli, 2013)
31. Dawn of the Dead 3-D (George A. Romero, 1978) *, **

* seen in the theater
** rewatch

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Best movie: Groundhog Day as a slasher? Sure, why not? Happy Death Day delivers on that high-concept premise, as spoiled sorority girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) relives the same day over and over again, each time dying at the hands of a mysterious baby-masked stalker, only to wake up again on the morning of her birthday, the clock reset. Lots of fun is had as she comes to understand her situation and uses it to discover her killer; a montage in which she follows various suspects, crossing them off her list, is one of the most purely joyous sequences I’ve seen this year; she learns a few lessons and grows as a person, as you might expect. But the film isn’t content only to hit the beats of its model, and even when Tree thinks she’s got it all figured out, it doesn’t let her (or us) off the hook quite so easily. I loved this movie: it’s funny and scary and satisfying, a movie about death brimming with life, anchored by a fantastic lead performance from Rothe.

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Worst Movie: I didn’t see anything that struck me as truly terrible this month, but horror as a genre often means gambling on the unknown, and they can’t all be winners. The most disappointing film I saw this month was surely House of the Damned; at barely over an hour, it feels padded: it opens with an estate lawyer calling architect Scott Campbell (Ron Foster) to offer him a job surveying a long-empty mansion built by an eccentric heiress so it can be sold; then Scott repeats the same information to his wife in a second conversation. Once the pair move into the house and begin their work, strange things begin to happen: doors are locked, keys are missing or found moved, and they are watched by unseen eyes. Perhaps the last tenants never really left? The middle section features some eerie imagery reminiscent of the classic Freaks (and includes an early performance by Richard “Jaws” Kiel), but just as it’s getting good the whole thing winds up and all the tension and mystery dissolve in a puff of smoke with an explanation even tamer than I would have guessed. This was shown on FXM Retro, with movie channel FXM taking a page from Turner Classic Movies and showing old movies from the Fox vault, uncut and without commercials. Sometimes the movies are pleasantly surprising discoveries; other times they are justifiably forgotten programmers like House of the Damned. Oh, well, it least it had a cool poster.

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Scariest Movie: Would I lose credibility if I named Hell Fest as the movie that most tightened the screws on me while I watched it? I’ve been in the position of heroine Natalie (Amy Forsyth), as the scaredy-cat dragged into things by friends with thicker skin, and the movie ramps up so subtly that I was convinced in the first forty-five minutes or so that it wasn’t scary at all. Only once I grew attached to the characters and invested in their story did things get intense, but it worked on me. I’ve previously expressed my relative lack of interest in slashers (although I did see several this year, including the classic original Halloween, finally), but Hell Fest‘s setting–a pop-up theme park devoted to horror, of the sort that have become popular in recent years–is colorful and intriguing, and the idea of a real killer being loose in such a place provides copious opportunities to explore one of my favorite horror tropes: the thin line between theater and reality. Some of the best moments in Hell Fest involve killings taking place in front of blasé parkgoers, convinced that they’re just seeing another performance; and who will believe someone is really stalking Natalie when the entire park is set up to instill and exploit that fear?

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Also Scariest, In a Different Way, Movie: Another movie from this year, Hereditary, has gotten a lot of buzz, with comparisons to The Exorcist (although in my opinion Rosemary’s Baby might be the more apt comparison). Suffice it to say that this was one of the most intense, dread-inducing films I watched this month, but much of that came from the barrage of horrible events that befall the family at the center of the story (made all the worse because they are things that could plausibly happen, outside of the supernatural business) and Toni Collette’s volcanic performance as the mother of the family whiplashed by grief, guilt, and fear for her own sanity. One could imagine tackling this material as a psychological drama without the occult overlay, but the film telegraphs early on that witchcraft is brewing, so there’s not as much tension as there could be in the notion that Collette is losing her mind. This was still a disturbing film whose imagery will linger with me for a long time, though.

Goriest Movie: Only two films are really in the running this year: Blood Diner features a cannibal cult hiding behind the façade of a vegetarian eatery (O irony!); as such, it gleefully transgresses all notions of good taste, filling the screen with severed limbs and dismembered body parts, all washed down with gallons of stage blood. But since Blood Diner is a comedy (no, really!), it’s all phony and it’s hard to take too seriously. By contrast, the 2013 Evil Dead remake is in deadly earnest, and is one of the most violent movies I’ve seen recently. (Since I revisited Sam Raimi’s original trilogy this month, I figured I might as well check out this later installment. It earns points for remixing some of the original’s iconic moments in the context of a new story rather than remaking the original beat-for-beat: for one thing, there’s no replacing Bruce Campbell’s Ash.) The original Evil Dead was a grotty supernatural spin on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and it is quite intense (only in the later sequels did the comedy come to the fore), but realistic it is not. The 2013 Evil Dead is both more graphic (and plays nothing for laughs) and doesn’t flinch; there’s no cutting away from the self-mutilation of the demon-possessed victims or the extreme measures the heroes must take to save themselves; director Fede Alvarez dares you to watch.

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Weirdest Movie: After reading director Don Coscarelli’s memoir, True Indie: Life and Death in Film Making this month, I decided to fill in some of my blind spots in his filmography, including the Phantasm sequels I hadn’t seen and his most recent feature, John Dies at the End. I haven’t read the David Wong novel upon which John is based, but it’s easy to see the appeal the material would have for the director of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep, including parallel dimensions, mysterious supernatural adversaries, and grotesque monsters (there’s even a cameo by Angus Scrimm, Phantasm‘s “Tall Man,” as a priest). Like the Raimi-influenced Phantasm sequels, John Dies at the End handles its ideas in a tongue-in-cheek manner, centering on a drug nicknamed “soy sauce”; the drug gives its users psychic abilities with the unfortunate side effect of opening rifts in time and space, placing (authorial self-insert) Wong in the middle of an interdimensional invasion. John riffs giddily on themes pioneered by H. P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, and William Burroughs, and the snarky humor, frequently scrambled chronology, and unreliable narrator (as Wong, in fits and starts, tells his story to a skeptical reporter played by Paul Giamatti) bring to mind cult film forebears like Donnie Darko and Fight Club.

Funniest Movie: Every year, there is at least one film in my October viewing that stretches the category of horror movie: this year that film is Venom, the action-horror-comedy hybrid starring Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock, a loser who becomes entangled with a hungry alien symbiote. I was skeptical when I heard about this project: in the comics, Venom is inextricably linked with Spider-Man, but with Spider-Man busy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, how would Sony credibly produce a spin-off without the main character? That turns out to be less of a hurdle than I expected, but the comic-book origins are still, in my opinion, the main challenge to categorizing Venom as a horror movie. Of course, I will be the first to admit that Venom isn’t scary, and while there’s quite a bit of violence there’s not a drop of blood; still, based on its premise and plot points, this is a movie about a shape-changing alien who takes possession of a human and bites off the heads of his enemies, leading to scenes of body horror and split personality. What really makes Venom take off is Hardy’s commitment to the bizarre premise (and his penchant for adopting funny voices, even before the symbiote takes over his body), throwing himself into contortions and chewing the scenery like Jim Carrey in The Mask. That’s not a comparison I would usually make as a compliment in a superhero movie, but the key to the movie is just how little actual heroism is involved: Eddie Brock is a loser, and he finds the friend and supporter he needs in his alien companion–who, it turns out, is also a bit of a loser. Forget the requisite CGI monster battle, which comes off blurry and incomprehensible anyway: it’s beside the point. The heart of Venom is an off-the-wall, sometimes kinky buddy comedy.

Most Inspired by Actual Events: We all know that when Sarah Winchester began, on the advice of a spiritualist, the decades-long expansion of her California mansion in order to evade the pursuing spirits of those killed by her late husband’s rifles, she couldn’t have been in her right mind. What this year’s Winchester supposes is, maybe she was? The words “inspired by” do a lot of heavy lifting in this tale of an alcoholic physician (Jason Clarke), himself marked by death, who arrives at the constantly under-construction mansion in order to evaluate Mrs. Winchester’s (Helen Mirren) state of mind. Will it surprise you to learn that the place really is haunted? The labyrinthine Winchester house is a fantastic setting, and the film is a well-constructed ghost story, but the elegant Western gothic that could have been is overpowered by a constant need to prod the audience. If jump scares produced actual fright instead of momentary surprise, this would be the scariest movie of the month by far, and I would now be under treatment for acute hypertension.

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Musical Horror: Finally, longtime readers of Medleyana may be aware of my longstanding interest in musical horror, particularly fables in which musicians trade their souls to the devil in exchange for success (“Instruments of Death,” still my most-read entry, is a good introduction to this topic). Of the three music-related films I watched this month, two had exactly that premise (Slaughterhouse Rock, despite its title and the presence of Toni Basil as the ghost of a dead rock star, isn’t really about the rock scene at all): in Hellbent, punk Lemmy (Phil Ward) makes a deal with “Mr. Tanas” (David Marciano)–the film is not exactly subtle; it similarly makes much of the anagrammatic relation between Santa and Satan–and becomes a junky almost overnight, crossing paths with other desperate people caught in Tanas’ web. A quintessential indie film, Hellbent features plenty of grimy L.A. atmosphere and broadly-drawn characters, as well as some big laughs (whether they are intentional or not, I can’t say for sure, but I was never bored with it).

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Paganini Horror came to my attention on Twitter as a movie that was hilariously inept but all the more entertaining because of it, a description that fits it exactly. Made by infamous Italian low-budget filmmaker Luigi Cozzi, this one filters themes of Dominic Argento through the context of MTV music videos and the legend of the violinist Niccolò Paganini selling his soul; Paganini himself turns up, wearing a gold Carnaval mask like the Commandatore in Don Giovanni, killing off the members of the all-girl rock band who hope to turn his lost composition into New Wave gold. Those who aren’t murdered directly fall victim to increasingly bizarre ends, such as the girl whose body is consumed by a mold only found in the wood of Cremona and Stradivarius violins. Also, Donald Pleasence was there for a day to film a couple of scenes and wrap things up with a suitably diabolical explanation. Ah, Italian genre film, never change.

That wraps up October until next year. Happy Halloween!

Lovefest: The Creeping Terror

This article was written for Lovefest, a group project of the Dissolve Facebook community, in which individual writers step up to defend or promote films that flopped, were critically maligned, or are generally forgotten. My previous Lovefest entries can be read here and here; a list of all of the movies covered in past Lovefests can be found here.

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For me, it started with Gilda Radner: in one sketch in It Came From Hollywood, the 1982 homage/clip show celebrating old genre flicks (and an early inspiration for my love of monster movies), Radner plays a little girl excitedly describing and reacting to the latest monster shows she had seen, throwing stuffed animals around the room while pretending they’re the Fly, the Horror of Party Beach, and so on. “I call this one the carpet monster,” she says over a clip of a creature that does indeed look much like an ambulatory pile of carpet samples, or perhaps an oversized bedspread, invading a dance party. “He eats up ladies . . . except for their shoes,” she continues as a pair of shapely nylon-clad legs is slurped into the monster’s gaping mouth. After rediscovering It Came From Hollywood a few years ago, I set out to watch the complete “carpet monster” movie, whatever it was: ICFH ends with a list of the movies excerpted in the film, but doesn’t credit them in individual scenes. With the help of Google and IMDB I was able to narrow it down and found that I already owned a copy of The Creeping Terror (A. J. Nelson, 1963) that I hadn’t watched yet on a public-domain monster movie collection. (Only afterwards did I find out that The Creeping Terror had been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000; I could have saved myself a lot of trouble but I had stopped watching the show by the time that episode aired.)

It would be a stretch to say that I “love” The Creeping Terror, and even more of one to defend it on the basis of its quality, which veers from workmanlike to surreally inept. Like Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Creeping Terror was included in Michael Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards; we’re long past believing that Plan 9 is actually the worst movie ever made, but The Creeping Terror . . . well, let’s just say it’s still awaiting its critical reevaluation. Made on a shoestring in 1963, the film features hopelessly crude special effects, amateurish acting, and a plot that’s beyond formulaic: it’s schematic. Yet I would argue that it is an interesting film in its own right, with some effective moments that are overshadowed by its reputation (and yes, there are some jaw-droppers as well).

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As the story goes in its 76-minute run time, Deputy Martin Gordon (Vic Savage), returned from his honeymoon with his new bride (Shannon O’Neil), sees a UFO land (an effect accomplished with some blurry moving lights and footage of a rocket liftoff shown in reverse). Joining his uncle, the Sheriff, to investigate the landing site, they find a spaceship with a monstrous creature locked inside; the Sheriff is the first to be eaten while exploring the ship’s interior. After that, the investigation is taken over by the military; a top space scientist, Dr. Bradford (William Thourlby), arrives to study the ship and, if possible, communicate with its passenger. Unbeknownst to them, a second creature had already escaped into the nearby woods, and it cuts a swath through the area population, (slowly) eating necking picnickers, a young mother, a boy and his grandpa, the participants at a “hootenanny,” and finally an entire community center’s worth of dancers. Once the monster hits the nearby lover’s lane, the authorities catch up to it and confront the creature; it gets shot up by a platoon of soldiers, and then eats them. The Colonel finally blows it up with a grenade.

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“Anyone who experienced that catastrophe and lived would never go there again.”

After finding electrical components in the creature’s carcass, Dr. Bradford returns to the ship and is nearly killed by an explosion that releases the second creature. Deputy Gordon rams his police car in to the monster and kills it. Bradford tells Gordon that he has solved the mystery: he believes that the monsters were sent by a distant civilization as test animals, “living laboratories” engineered to eat and evaluate whatever life forms they found. He guesses that, now that the creatures are dead (and humanity’s weaknesses known), the ship’s computer will transmit their findings back to their home planet. Gordon tries to smash the ship’s computer but fails. Before he dies, Dr. Bradford says there may yet be reason to hope: perhaps by the time the creatures’ alien masters can act on the information they collected, mankind will be more advanced and ready for the challenge. “Only God knows for sure.” The End.

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The first thing one notices is the intermittent sound: sometimes the characters’ voices are dubbed so they are speaking lines normally, but most of the time an omniscient voiceover narrates the film, paraphrasing the conversation the characters are having onscreen, their mouths still moving out of sync. There are reasons for this, having to do with the film’s fly-by-night production (see below), but the result is alienating; it would be death for a romantic comedy, but for a horror film it sort of works, and it lends a documentary gravity to the otherwise absurd plot: its very flatness is ironically a mark of verisimilitude. In one scene in which Martin’s friend, fellow officer Barney, deals with the emotional fallout of his buddy getting married and not wanting to hang out as much, the narration takes on the fatherly tone of a contemporary mental hygiene film, as if this were merely a case study for class discussion: “Life has its way of making boys grow up, and with marriage Martin’s time had come,” the announcer intones while Barney stews on the couch, Mr. and Mrs. Gordon making out in the kitchen. In other scenes, the effect is downright surreal as the sound engineers add layers of ambient sound and music after the fact to cover up the characters’ uncomfortable silence.

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The film’s isolated settings (filmed at the shabby Spahn Movie Ranch, a comedown from the intended Lake Tahoe setting) also contribute to its sense of menace: most of the victims are outdoors or near the woods, making them seem small and easy to pick off. One might think that almost anyone could outrun the slow-moving monster, but in one of the film’s more laughable conceits, the creature is so terrifying that most of its victims stay rooted on the spot, screaming in fear until it can catch up to them. The film’s money shot (repeated often) consists of a woman’s legs or feet dangling from the creature’s maw as it swallows them slowly enough that the actors could be crawling inside (which, of course, is how it was actually filmed).

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Other kills are more cinematically effective, either shown from the monster’s POV with the cowering victim in the center of the frame (the death of the young mother hanging laundry while her baby fusses inside is probably the most effective in the film; in addition to the weird effect of the creature wriggling into the otherwise mundane shot, at the moment of the woman’s death her scream cuts to the sound of her baby crying) or simply left for the audience’s inference (Bobby, the young boy fishing with his grandpa, leaves behind only a bit of torn cloth from his shirt). Scenes in which the monster kills with brute force are less successful: when sucking a pair of teenagers out of their convertible at lover’s lane, it appears to be humping the car; later, it eats all of the soldiers at once by dropping on top of them. Even at the dance, it’s impossible to imagine the creature killing everyone without them obligingly lining up to get in its belly.

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The film’s most elaborate set piece, the creature’s attack on the dance hall, shows The Creeping Terror at its best and worst. An uncharacteristically long buildup shows the dance in progress, the crowd made up of a range of ages; while the band plays a repetitive twist tune, dancers fill the floor while others sit at tables and the bar. It’s all very normal; the only element that might raise an eyebrow is the amount of time spent on close-ups of the legs and feet of several dancers in tight pants. On the sidelines, a few human dramas play out: a woman leaves in a huff, and a drunk swipes the drink she left behind; a fight breaks out. It’s possible that these characters were more fully fleshed out in the original script, but with only a few audible lines here and there all we get are snippets. It’s like going to a party where you don’t know anyone, observing people at random and only seeing disconnected glimpses of their behavior.

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Abruptly, we see a shot of the approaching monster outside, the music twisting away at a lower volume, as if heard from a distance, so we know it’s nearby. The narrator has already informed us that the community dance hall would be the next target, but the sequence, cutting between the oblivious dancers and the creature outside, getting closer, is almost suspenseful. A shot of a dancer’s jiggling bottom cuts to the writhing tendrils that crown the monster’s “head.” Subtle, it is not.

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Suddenly, without any transition or shot of the monster coming through a doorway, it is there, in the corner of the room! It is in this moment that the film’s weak grasp on continuity comes to resemble the anti-logic of the nightmare, and the scrambled soundtrack reinforces the confusion. A woman shouts, “My God, what is it!?”, her voice dubbed, but another woman screams without any sound added, her terror expressed only by the musical soundtrack, the relentless twist finally giving way to more typical horror music.

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The partygoers gather in one corner of the room while the monster, shot from overhead, awkwardly pushes past tables and chairs; they would obviously have time to reach the exits, but this is the kind of nightmare where your feet won’t budge, and they have no choice but to await their fate (in one overhead shot of the monster, a couple clearly approach the monster and the man even gives the woman a little push forward as if to say, “you first”). Insanely, the fistfight that broke out earlier still continues in the other corner of the room. We get plenty of close-up shots of pretty legs sticking out of the creature’s slit-like mouth, and if we haven’t figured out by now what the director’s main interest in the material is, then I don’t think we can say he’s the one who doesn’t get it.

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After years of contradictory information about the making of this low-budget oddity (so obscure at first that there’s no evidence it was even screened until it was sold as part of a TV package in the 1970s, leading to late-night broadcasts and sparking its notoriety among horror hounds), several facts came to light thanks to the research of fan Pete Schuermann (the story as I now relay it comes from Schuermann’s docudrama The Creep Behind the Camera and an article in Screem magazine no. 30 by Brian Albright). For one thing, leading man “Vic Savage” and director “A. J. Nelson” were one and the same person, a petty criminal and con artist named Arthur White. White had always wanted to be a star, and this obsession seems to have sprung from the same sociopathic narcissism that led him to abuse and exploit everyone around him, including his long-suffering wife Lois.

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It is unclear whether he intended The Creeping Terror to be a real movie or if it was a hustle all along, but in addition to making the movie as cheaply as possible, he funneled much of the funding he got from backers (including Thourlby, a former Marlboro Man) into his personal drug habit, and he spun the opportunity to make his film further by selling shares in it to cast and crew, effectively turning it into a pay-for-play scheme. (He had previously absconded with the profits from his first film, Street-Fighter.) According to some members of the film crew at the time, he would film the same scenes with different people multiple times because he had made so many promises, often without actually putting film in the camera. In any case, White disappeared before the movie was completed, possibly fleeing law enforcement (in addition to drugs, White had connections to a prostitution ring and Schuermann’s film implies he may have been involved in child pornography) and leaving Thourlby to piece together the existing footage and replace the missing (or possibly never-recorded) audio. By this time, writer Allan Silliphant had cut ties with White in disgust, so there was probably no longer a script to refer to and the actors had all gone their separate ways: thus, the voiceover was written to patch the scenes together.

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From these behind-the-scenes details, it is clear that The Creeping Terror works largely by accident and thanks to the hard work of professionals trying to salvage something out of disaster. It’s hard enough to make a movie on purpose: the fact that The Creeping Terror is as watchable as it is, flaws and all, is nearly miraculous. (Even as a patch-up, it compares favorably to the similar work of White’s contemporary, Jerry Warren, for example.) But what are we to make of Arthur White and his contribution? Aren’t there enough actual good movies in the world that we don’t have to feel obligated to give time to work made by scumbags? For what it’s worth, I had seen The Creeping Terror and found it interesting before I heard about its origins; I don’t think White’s scamming and abuse make his movie “cool” or “edgy,” and there were plenty of earnest, would-be professional filmmakers involved with the production. They were White’s victims, too, and they could have cut their losses, but they didn’t. (If it makes you feel any better about watching, White never made any more money from it after dropping out of the production, leaving it in a legal limbo; he died in 1975 and the film is now in the public domain.)

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But knowing the context does explain some of the more bizarre choices the film makes, and especially shines a spotlight on the sexual imagery that lies so close to the surface, on the obsession with legs and feet, with the blunt symbolism of a monster that combines both phallic and vaginal imagery, and especially with the film’s odd detours into the domestic sphere. Shannon O’Neil (her real name Shannon Boltres), the lead actress, was White’s girlfriend at the time, even while he was still married to Lois, who had returned to him with the promise of better behavior after one of their splits; were the scenes of newlywed bliss meant to rub his infidelity in Lois’ face, or was he imagining the married life–he upstanding and virile, she nubile and obedient–that he would have preferred? Or was it simply the writer’s take on a well-worn formula? Perhaps because she has an actual character to play, neither one of the screaming victims nor a stoic hero, O’Neil/Boltres comes off as the best actor in the film, with a few small moments that suggest she knew exactly what kind of movie she was in. She doesn’t have any later screen credits, so it’s hard to say what she might have done in a better film.

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Screenwriter Allan Silliphant later claimed that his script was intended to be a spoof, with a brain-dead plot and comically obvious symbolism, and that does line up with a certain kind of gleefully acidic L.A. satire; but the end product doesn’t scan as being funny (aside from the unintentional laughs) or even ironic. It’s too out there, more like the cut-up methods William Burroughs was exploring; the contemporary equivalent to its scrambled production method might be one of those scripts generated by an A.I. after feeding it x number of sample scripts, the results inspiring the nervous laughter of seeing ourselves reflected back at us by something completely alien. As Brian Albright describes it, The Creeping Terror is “almost an un-film.” But honestly, most genre movies involve some mental sorting of this kind, separating what works from what can be enjoyed in a humorous way and what can only be discarded. This may be an extreme example, but it’s short, rarely boring, and includes several memorable sequences.

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In the lover’s lane scene, there’s a guy sitting in his car by himself, smoking a pipe, apparently spying on the young couples parking and necking, or maybe just checking up on them. When the monster shows up and starts attacking teenagers, the pipe smoker just sits and watches in disbelief before driving off. He’s the only completely passive observer in the movie. I guess he’s a little like the audience for this film: he came to see one thing, possibly with a prurient interest, but he got a lot more than he bargained for.

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