Spooktober: The Aftermath

It is November first, the day after Halloween. The candy has been handed out, and all that remains is to put away the costumes and take the decorations out of the yard. Elsewhere online, people are already gearing up for Noirvember or NaNoWriMo or “No-Shave November.” As I write this I am watching a compilation of horror movie trailers to keep the mood going, after having hit the Spirit Halloween Store to check out the after-holiday sales.

I usually like to post this October summary on the 31st, but the holiday itself turned out to be busy with work during the day and taking the kids trick-or-treating in the evening (this year I went as my namesake, celebrity chef Guy Fieri), not to mention cramming in a few last-minute horror movies. As always, I kept track of my viewing in the last month: the results are a little less varied than in some years, partly because I watched more series and sequels this time. I had a pile of movies set aside for this month, and watched quite a few of them, but since I bought more movies during the month, the pile I have left is almost as big.

Blade Runner 2049 was the only film I watched that isn’t horror, but in the past I’ve included movies that are better described as fantasy or science fiction or that belong to horror-adjacent genres such as thrillers or kaiju eiga; I’m not much for splitting hairs. (It was good, by the way.)

There were also theatrical screenings at the Warren Oldtown Horrorfest (formerly October at the Oldtown), organized by local filmmaker and presenter Leif Jonker (and shown nationwide by the Regal Cinemas chain, which purchased the Warren theaters earlier this year). The only Horrorfest film I skipped was Jaws, which is great but feels more like a summer movie to me. In addition to the Horrorfest screenings, my viewing included films on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube, and cable television (thanks, TCM!). (I’m not really a VHS collector, but I appreciate a bargain, and when I found a copy of Saturday the 14th at a church flea market on Saturday the 14th, how could I not pick it up?)

1. The Awakening (Mike Newell, 1980)
2. Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971)
3. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)*
4. Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985)*,**
5. Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998)
6. Blade II (Guillermo del Toro, 2002)
7. Blade: Trinity (David S. Goyer, 2004)
8. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)
9. The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983)*
10. Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert, 1989)*
11. The Monster Squad (Fred Dekker, 1987)*
12. Slave of the Cannibal God aka Mountain of the Cannibal God (Sergio Martino, 1978)
13. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (José Mojica Marins, 1964)
14. This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (José Mojica Marins, 1967)
15. Embodiment of Evil (José Mojica Marins, 2008)
16. Saturday the 14th (Howard R. Cohen, 1981)
17. Saturday the 14th Strikes Back (Howard R. Cohen, 1988)
18. Blacula (William Crain, 1972)
19. King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)*, **
20. Them! (Gordon Douglas, 1954)*, **
21. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)*
22. Scream, Blacula, Scream (Bob Kelljan, 1973)
23. Society (Brian Yuzna, 1989)
24. The Mad Executioners (Edwin Zbonek, 1963)
25. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)*
26. Vampires (John Carpenter, 1998)
27. Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)*
28. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)*
29. Torture Dungeon (Andy Milligan, 1970)
30. The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921)
31. Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper, 1979)
32. The Ghost of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1942)
33. The Vault of Horror (Roy Ward Baker, 1973)
34. The Whip and the Body (Mario Bava, 1963)
35. The Crimson Cult (Vernon Sewell, 1968)
36. House of the Long Shadows (Pete Walker, 1983)
37. The Secret of the Mummy (Ivan Cardoso, 1982)
38. Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968)*, **
39. Theater of Blood (Douglas Hickox, 1973)

* theatrical screening
** rewatch

Best movie: It’s hard to pick a clear-cut winner out of so many films. Aside from rewatches, Suspiria, Theater of Blood, Frankenweenie, and Blacula were all very solid films. I was also very taken by A Nightmare on Elm Street after years of thinking I wouldn’t like it. In fact, I enjoyed most of the movies I watched for the first time this month, with only a few duds.

Ultimately, I think David Cronenberg’s prescient media fantasia Videodrome (which, admittedly, I had seen bits and pieces of previously) is going to stay with me the longest. In addition to its Philip K. Dick-like meditations on perception vs. reality and weird body horror (an element Cronenberg is obviously known for), Videodrome captures and anticipates the reality of lives half lived through screens and the attendant social changes. I hadn’t realized just how much Max Headroom and The Matrix owed to Videodrome, from the analog futurism of hand-delivered videotape messages (maybe we could call it . . . “v-mail”?) to the overwhelming importance of television for people’s spiritual well-being (the “Cathode Ray Mission,” where the homeless could get a meal and some precious screen-time, being an obvious example, and one that Max Headroom borrowed almost verbatim). And, as in They Live (another film that could almost fit in the same universe), the question of who is ultimately behind the signals the TV stations broadcast, and what impact they have, has an answer that is anything but reassuring.

Scariest movie: I had waited to see Dario Argento’s giallo-inflected supernatural mystery Suspiria until I could see it on the big screen, and my patience wasn’t disappointed: the colors were vibrant and the story suitably suspenseful and frightening. And I’ve come to look forward to performances by lead Jessica Harper, who around this time seemed to specialize in movies that made use of her uneasy brittleness. However, the most surprising revelation of all was finding an Italian horror movie with a plot that makes sense!

Goriest movie(s): Two movies are tied for this category. The first, Slave of the Cannibal God, has many of the hallmarks of the Italian cannibal genre, including an emphasis on realism (although unlike many cannibal films, Slave does not pretend to be a documentary) that extends to filming the real deaths of animals in both native rituals and in (staged) fights that purport to show the cruelty of the jungle. No thanks. There is also a tremendous amount of (hopefully simulated!) human gore once the fearsome cannibal tribe is reached, and a third-act sequence of horrors that gets hard to take long before it is over. No wonder it was included on the infamous “video nasties” list by censors in the United Kingdom.

The other contender is Embodiment of Evil by Brazilian writer-director-star José Mojica Marins, who has made an industry of his character Zé do Caixão, better known in English as “Coffin Joe.” The evil undertaker, who began his career in the 1960s with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, demonstrates a cruelty and indifference to conventional morality that makes him a unique antihero for a conservative society, with many similarities to the characters of the Marquis de Sade. Embodiment of Evil, Coffin Joe’s 2008 “comeback,” bears that comparison even more than his earlier films, since sophisticated special effects and more relaxed mores make it possible for Joe to terrorize his victims with much more graphic punishments (the cast also appears to include a number of body-modification practitioners, so it’s not even obvious to me that all of the piercings and other mortifications are strictly fake). I found the Coffin Joe movies interesting (and I liked the second one, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, quite a bit), but ultimately Embodiment of Evil was as close to “torture porn” as I care to explore.

Dumbest movie I will probably watch again: Several of the movies I watched were either comedies or included frequent humor. Saturday the 14th was the most obviously jokey, a spoof of all kinds of horror movies thrown into a blender of a story about a book that will release all the evil in the world if read on the titular date. Jeffrey Tambor (in one of his first movie roles) appears as a vampire who appears to be going through a mid-life crisis, and the comedy really takes off when the monster hunter Van Helsing (Severn Darden) shows up as an “exterminator.” Silly stuff, but amusing for what it is and I could see it becoming an every few years tradition.

Worst movie: The first movie spawned a sequel, Saturday the 14th Strikes Back, a few years later, so of course I had to watch it. The good news is that there is no narrative connection or continuity to the first one beyond the simple idea that bad things are going to happen on the date in question. Also, while researching this, I discovered that none other than Gahan Wilson created the poster for the film, so there’s that. The bad news is that the movie is cheaply made and even dopier in its humor than the first one. It’s a candidate for weirdest movie, but the substitution of wackiness and off-the-wall behavior for actual jokes feels desperate. It also doesn’t make much sense: the premise of the film is that an ordinary family starts acting strangely when a crack in the basement begins releasing evil into the world, but they’re pretty nutty to begin with, eating candy for every meal and going through OCD-like precautions to protect themselves from germs. It feels like a movie straight from the imagination of the little boy in “It’s a Good Life.”

Actual Weirdest movie: In addition to the Saturday the 14th movies, there was quite a bit of weirdness in Videodrome and the similarly ooky Society; The Crimson Cult was frankly not weird enough for a film supposedly based on H. P. Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch-House,” and its Scooby-Doo-like ending bummed me out. I have in the past made a distinction between movies that are weird in themselves and movies that appear to have been made by weirdoes: The Secret of the Mummy, by Brazilian provocateur Ivan Cardoso, qualifies as both. Jumping between black and white and color and incorporating stock travelogue and newsreel footage, as well as impressionistic montages and rapid cuts between isolated details, The Secret of the Mummy tells the story of an obsessed scientist who recovers an Egyptian mummy in order to test out his elixir of life and revive it. The fact that the young Pharaoh was a sex-crazed serial killer in life doesn’t faze the scientist, and once the mummy is up and about he resumes his favorite pastime. It feels like a collision of a Universal monster movie (as well as the sexed-up mummy, there are shades of Frankenstein, including a hunchbacked lab assistant) and a Carry On sex comedy. The Secret of the Mummy is unapologetically kinky, but extremely stylish, and Cardoso reminds me (based on this single film–I have three more to watch) of a straight, Brazilian John Waters.

Horror on a Budget: The crudeness of The Secret of the Mummy‘s production also reminds me of another outsider filmmaker I encountered this month, Andy Milligan, who in Torture Dungeon attempts to stage a medieval “epic” with a shoestring budget on Staten Island. One of Milligan’s techniques is to hide the paltriness of his sets by filming in tight close-up–so tight, in fact, that I didn’t realize until halfway through the movie that a main character only has one arm. Torture Dungeon is as raw as I was led to expect–the titular dungeon is onscreen for not more than three or four minutes, and the gore is of the Herschell Gordon Lewis papier-mâché variety–but was mostly enjoyable. It helps that I enjoy movies in which the seams show. By far the worst parts were the walk-on characters who do nothing to advance the story but deliver community theater-style stage business.

Finally, for the first time this year I took part in an October horror movie challenge, watching films to match specific categories. I generally just follow my whims when choosing what to watch, but it was fun expanding my horizons with some of the requirements. The Spooktober Challenge consisted of 31 categories, voted on from a list of nominees by members of The HORRORS . . . of THE DISSOLVE! Facebook group, with one movie counting for each category. Here are the categories and the movies that satisfied each one:

1. A horror movie by a female director: Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert)
2. A black and white horror movie: King Kong
3. A horror movie from a country other than your own: The Mad Executioners (Germany)
4. A horror anthology: The Vault of Horror
5. A horror movie marketed to kids: The Monster Squad
6. A horror-comedy: Saturday the 14th
7. A silent horror movie: The Phantom Carriage
8. An avant-garde or experimental horror movie: Videodrome
9. A horror movie featuring a non-white protagonist: Blade
10. A classic Universal monster movie: The Ghost of Frankenstein
11. A horror movie by an LGBTQ writer or director: Torture Dungeon (Andy Milligan)
12. A Hammer horror movie: Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb
13. A horror movie involving a non-Christian/Satanic religion: Scream, Blacula, Scream (Voodoo)
14. A horror movie from the year you were born: Theater of Blood (1973)
15. An “all-time great” horror movie that you’ve never seen: A Nightmare on Elm Street
16. A giallo: Suspiria
17. A horror movie starring Vincent Price: House of the Long Shadows
18. A horror movie from Latin America: The Secret of the Mummy (Brazil)
19. A Mario Bava movie: The Whip and the Body
20. A made-for-TV horror movie: Salem’s Lot
21. A horror movie that terrified you as a child: Them!
22. A John Carpenter movie: Vampires
23. A Lovecraftian horror movie: The Crimson Cult
24. A horror movie by a non-white director: Blacula (William Crain)
25. A slasher movie that is not part of a franchise: Corruption (Robert Hartford-Davis, 1968)
26. A video nasty: Slave of the Cannibal God
27. A body horror: Society
28. A horror movie featuring a witch or witchcraft: Embodiment of Evil
29. A horror movie where someone turns into an animal – but NOT a werewolf: Cat People
30. An animated horror movie or short: Frankenweenie
31. A horror movie by a typically non-horror director: The Awakening (Mike Newell)

The terms of the challenge allowed for movies viewed in September to count, but I only needed to count one: Corruption is something of a proto-slasher, with Peter Cushing as an increasingly-unhinged surgeon who kills women to supply his disfigured girlfriend with the pituitary gland extract that keeps her beautiful. I’m not a huge fan of slashers, anyway, so this was close enough for me.

In addition, there were three “bonus challenges” that I successfully completed: at least one movie from each decade, 1920s to 2010s; no more than five movies that you have already seen (King Kong and Them! were the only rewatches I counted toward the challenge); and only one movie per director (it was lucky for me that Blacula and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream didn’t have the same director!).

I hope you had a happy Halloween and saw something good or at least surprising in the past month. Let me know if you recommend anything else based on what I’ve listed here or if you just have a horror movie you’re enthusiastic about. I’ve already got my list for next year started: after all, it’s only twelve months until next Halloween!

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The Bangers n’ Mash Show Announces 2016 Phantom Awards

. . . and I got to come along for the ride! The Bangers n’ Mash Show, a podcast run by Zack Clopton and John Collis, gives out its Phantom Awards for achievements in science fiction, fantasy, and horror films, including the usual categories like Best Picture but also including a genre-specific Best Monster/Creature/Madman/etc. For their most recent awards, I (and some of my colleagues from the Dissolve diaspora) had the opportunity to record introductions for a few of the nominees. You can find the show on YouTube (where it’s like a podcast, but with a broad range of pictures you can look at while you listen–maybe they should call it a “broadcast,” eh?) or watch the embedded video:

If you read my overview of 2016 films, my comments may sound familiar, but I enjoyed hearing what my fellow Dissolvers had to say, and perhaps, like me, you’ll come away with some recommendations for films that weren’t on your radar. Thanks to Zack and John for the chance to participate, and thanks to all you readers for listening!

October 31: Spooky Movie Round-Up

BasketCase3

As I did last year, I kept track of all the movies I watched this October, with the goal of watching at least 31. Unlike last year, I managed to do it: yes, with a little planning and a lot of gumption I was able to sit and stare at various screens for a total of roughly forty-eight hours over the course of a month. No, hold your applause . . . sit down . . . it really makes me uncomfortable to have the word “hero” bandied about so lightly–but between you and me, no wonder I have such a feeling of accomplishment. I probably could have fit a few more in, actually, but after getting to 31 I still had a few days left until Halloween, and I decided to just enjoy the last couple of days with my family (and the World Series).

I’m pleased at the diversity of the films on my list, including several from other countries and examples from each decade since the 1950s, and a few classics I hadn’t gotten to until now. Most of them were first-time viewings for me (but how could I resist a double feature of Alien and Aliens on the big screen?).

So here’s the list in the order I watched, with director and year of release, as well as a helpful key to point out some recurring themes and motifs:

1. The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)** ggg
2. Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979)** g
3. The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983) m, v
4. House aka Hausu (Nobuhiku Ôbayashi, 1977) m, wx
5. Baba Yaga aka Kiss Me, Kill Me aka The Devil Watch (Corrado Farina, 1973) cam, wx
6. WNUF Halloween Special (Chris LaMartina et al, 2013) cam
7. The Return of the Living Dead (Dan O’Bannon, 1985) z
8. What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, 2014)** cam, v, ww, wx, z
9. Frankenhooker (Frank Henenlotter, 1990) md, z
10. Basket Case 2 (Frank Henenlotter, 1990) c, t
11. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)*, ** r
12. Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)*, ** pl, r
13. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) cam
14. Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (Hajime Sato, 1968) vs
15. The Living Skeleton (Hiroshi Matsuno, 1968) md
16. Ship of Monsters (Rogelio A. González, 1960) m, r, vsx
17. Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965) vs
18. The Spider Labyrinth (Gianfranco Giagni, 1988) ww
19. The Horror of Party Beach (Del Tenney, 1964) m
20. Genocide (Kazui Nihonmatsu, 1968) md
21. Basket Case 3 (Frank Henenlotter, 1991) c, m, pl, t
22. The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981)** cam, ww
23. Attack of the Puppet People (Bert I. Gordon, 1958) m
24. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)* a, hpl, md, z
25. Bride of Re-Animator (Brian Yuzna, 1989) a, md, w, z
26. Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2015)** ggg, w
27. Beyond Re-Animator (Brian Yuzna, 2003) a, md, z
28. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978) cam, z
29. Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1985)** md, z
30. Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009) z
31. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)** md

* rewatch
** seen in theater

a: Arkham setting
c: monstrous or supernatural child
cam: camera/photography
g: gateway or portal to otherworldly realm opened
ggg: g-g-g-ghosts!
hpl: H. P. Lovecraft adaptation
m: musical number
md: mad doctor/scientist
pl: power lifter
r: robot/android
t: twins
v: vampires
vs: space vampires
vsx: sexy space vampires
w: character in wheelchair
ww: werewolf/animal transformation
wx: witch
z: zombies/re-animated/walking dead

MKBC2family

So this list is perhaps more representative of my tastes than last year’s, reflecting my relatively larger interest in sci-fi, gothic, and erotic horror than, say, slashers. What can I say? I like the weird stuff. (On the other hand, I don’t consider myself a huge fan of zombies, but I sure spent a lot of time with them this month; gotta catch up with the classics sooner or later, I guess.)

Yesterday I posted an article over at The Solute on the brief wave of monster solidarity illustrated by Basket Case 2 and 3 and some other movies from the early ’90s, and tied it together with some of the other movies I watched this month. Check it out when you have time for ca. 3000 words about monsters.

In the mean time, here’s my rating of the movies on this list:

the-thing1

Best Movie: Well, Alien is pretty damn good, as is Re-Animator, but since those were rewatches I’m going to exclude them from consideration. Maybe it’s just fresh on my mind, but John Carpenter’s The Thing, based on the John W. Campbell story “Who Goes There?” (also the source material for 1951’s The Thing From Another World, which I haven’t seen) delivered almost everything you could want in a Halloween movie: suspense, scares, memorable characters, and crazy, inventive special effects in an eerie, claustrophobic setting. I say “almost” because, being about an all-male crew of researchers in an Antarctic base, it’s a complete sausage party (and it’s clear how much it owes to Alien after seeing both movies in close succession). Still, I have no excuse for not having seen this sooner, but it was worth waiting to experience it on the big screen.

HoPB

Worst Movie: I’d have to single out The Horror of Party Beach, which Stephen King memorably described as “a wet fart of a movie.” Cynically cashing in on the beach party and horror genres by combining them, it does at least have a good (if slightly silly) monster at its center, and the premise and characters suggest a better movie lurking within. The movie’s biggest problem is its indifference to tone: I don’t object to movies that combine comedy and horror, or switch gears midway through, but it takes some control on the part of the filmmakers, and Party Beach is surprisingly gruesome for a film that also includes one-line cutaway gags and a voodoo-obsessed black housekeeper as comic relief.

Scariest Movie: There have been a lot of discussions in The Dissolve’s Facebook group and elsewhere about how important scares are in horror movies: is a horror movie that doesn’t scare a failure? Is it even necessary to try to be scary if it otherwise falls within the genre? Is Crimson Peak underperforming at the box office because of a perception that it isn’t scary? (For the record, I found Crimson Peak intense enough for me and I enjoyed it very much, but it does build toward its scares gradually.) As I’ve written about before, I didn’t like scary movies as a kid, but now I watch and enjoy them, so if nothing else I’m very aware of how subjective scariness is and how much it depends on the viewer’s state of mind: is it fair to judge a movie that fails to scare a jaded horror movie veteran who sits, arms folded, and dares the movie to throw its worst at him? Or does a movie get credit for being randomly discovered on TV by an impressionable kid at the perfect age to have its images permanently branded on his psyche?

Personally, if a movie scares me now, I’m willing to give it credit, because it must be doing something right, even if all the evidence points to the opposite: if it’s scary, a story that doesn’t make sense follows “nightmare logic;” special effects that are obviously fake can still be creepily suggestive of “wrongness,” etc. If it’s not scary, all those things simply become laughable, and a movie that doesn’t scare had better have something else going in terms of plot, theme, or production.

Ultimately, I think horror movies are scarier when they reveal something dark about human nature (the ghosts in Crimson Peak are good for some tense moments, but the actual scary parts are the moments that focus on its heroine as she becomes aware of the net closing in around her, trapped in a house with murderers and conscious that they know she knows: that is a scary situation!); that may be why I’m less interested in films that are purely about human suffering, and why the films I gravitate to are more about fantastical concepts. Having said that, Day of the Dead is probably the best at combing tension, gore, and a bleak view of humanity that stuck with me, even with an ending that isn’t quite as dark as it could be.

Least Scary Movie: A 1958 film called Attack of the Puppet People from low-budget special-effects impresario Bert I. Gordon doesn’t sound like it would be scary, and it’s not. But it sounds like it would at least try to be scary, and it doesn’t even do that. There is very little “attacking” of any kind in this tale of a sad, lonely old doll-maker who uses a special device to shrink people to doll-size so that they can’t leave him. That said, it’s not a bad film, and there’s something of the Universal monsters’ pathos in the doll-maker’s self-justifying neediness. His wheedling insistence that if his victims would just accept their fate and let him take care of them, everything would be fine is reminiscent of a pedophile or an emotional abuser.

MKbride

Goriest Movie: Day of the Dead definitely doesn’t skimp on the blood and guts, something it has in common with all of the zombie/re-animation movies I saw this month. But I’m going to give Bride of Re-Animator the edge for its over-the-top climax.

Funniest Movie: I like my horror on the comic side, whether it’s the gonzo slapstick of Frank Henenlotter’s movies or the hangout vibe of Zombieland, but What We Do in the Shadows, a This is Spinal Tap-style mockumentary that follows a clan of vampires in New Zealand, was not only the funniest movie I saw this month but probably the funniest movie I’ve seen all year.

ShipofMonsters

Most Delightful Surprise: Ship of Monsters (La Nave de los Monstruos) was just a random YouTube recommendation, but it turned out to be a fun mash-up of sci-fi, monster movie, and musical comedy, just the kind of thing I like. It begins with two explorers, members of the all-female race that populates Venus, collecting male specimens from different planets to take back to their home in hopes of repopulating. Landing on Earth in Mexico, they encounter a singing vaquero who teaches them about love, something known only on Earth. Of course there are twists and turns, and the other specimens (a diverse crew of imaginative, if cheap-looking, space monsters) escape on Earth to wreak havoc. It sounds silly, and it is, very. This is the kind of movie where a robot falls in love with a jukebox: based on that, you should be able to tell whether you want to see it or not.

The One (Actually Two) That Got Away: I took advantage of several screenings that were part of the October at the Oldtown horror series this year, but I was spoiled for choice as the Palace Theatre was also offering special showings. By my count, there were at least twenty films offered at one- or two-day special screenings this month in my area, and I made it to about half of them. So while I didn’t see everything that was on offer, I attended as many shows as I could. The event I really regretted missing was a double feature starring the late Christopher Lee: Horror of Dracula (1958) and The Wicker Man (1973). Unfortunately, my schedule just didn’t allow it. Oh well, there’s always next year.

Until then, Happy Halloween, and DON’T TURN OUT THE LIGHTS!

The Short Horrors of Robert E. Howard

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Although in the popular imagination, Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) continues to be identified as the creator of Conan the Barbarian and a pillar of the sword and sorcery tradition, readers who have explored beyond Conan (or approached Howard from a different avenue, as I did) know that the prolific pulp writer also frequently indulged in horror in a variety of styles. Indeed, horror is a critical ingredient even of Howard’s heroic fantasy, and almost all of his work is streaked with terror.

Consider the foes, both monstrous and supernatural, that Conan and Howard’s other he-man heroes faced in their adventures (the gray ape that silently stalks Conan in a night-black dungeon in The Hour of the Dragon is typical, and it goes without saying that magic in Howard’s stories is rarely benevolent), and it becomes clear why it can be difficult to sort Howard’s “horror” tales from his other output, and why there is so little overlap between different collections.

This article focuses on four different paperback collections of Howard’s horror stories, comparing their contents and taking note of different editorial priorities. They are far from the only collections of Howard’s work, and no slight is meant against (for example) the pioneering paperback collections edited by Glenn Lord. The editions under discussion are, however, either in my possession or readily available, and each is different enough to warrant investigation. (Complete contents of each book are listed at the end of the article.)

My first encounter with Howard’s fiction was through Baen Books’ Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors, edited by David Drake. As I have written elsewhere, I actually had a hard time tracking down H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction when I first heard about it as a budding middle school fantasy enthusiast. His “Cthulhu Mythos” had for me at the time the same enchanted, mysterious quality that the Necronomicon had for his characters: something about which obscure references were dropped but which remained tantalizingly out of reach. The Mythos and Kindred Horrors was thus a welcome discovery, and the short story “The Black Stone” which leads off the book was the first proper Mythos story I was able to get my hands on.

Although short, The Mythos and Kindred Horrors remains a fine introduction to Howard’s macabre imagination: as promised, it contains a number of significant Mythos stories, including “The Black Stone,” “The Fire of Asshurbanipal,” and “The Thing on the Roof,” but also examples of his dark, violent fantasy (“The Valley of the Worm,” “People of the Dark,” and “Worms of the Earth”) and even a weird Western (“Old Garfield’s Heart”).

The final story, “Pigeons From Hell,” is a truly terrifying slice of Southern gothic, and like the greatest horror stories earns its scares as much from the depths of moral depravity it displays as from atmosphere or shocks (Stephen King named it “one of the finest horror stories of our century” in Danse Macabre). “Pigeons From Hell” was adapted into a 1961 episode of the Boris Karloff-hosted anthology show Thriller, an adaptation that, while effective, shows a clear debt to Psycho, released the previous year. Resetting it in the modern South made the horror more immediate, as if the two guys from Route 66 had stumbled onto the Bates Motel, but the abbreviated runtime strips out the racial element that gives the original story so much of its charge, even removing the final twist.

Pigeons.title

Another volume, and one that specifically includes only Howard’s Cthulhoid fiction (so no “Pigeons From Hell”), is Nameless Cults, edited by Robert M. Price. Presented by Chaosium, publisher of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, Nameless Cults is part of the Call of Cthulhu Fiction series: Chaosium publishes numerous volumes of fiction to supplement its game and to present the works of Lovecraft, other members of his circle, and contemporary authors in accessible editions; some are organized around a single subject or a specific deity or aspect of the Cthulhu Mythos, others by author, as in the case of Nameless Cults.

The title refers to one of Howard’s own contributions to the Mythos, the “Black Book” Unaussprechlichen Kulten by Friedrich Von Junzt, the author’s answer to Lovecraft’s forbidden tome the Necronomicon. Embroidering on his friend’s growing set of references, Howard added Von Junzt and his book, along with such characters as the “mad poet” Justin Geoffrey and the Great Old One Gol-Goroth, to the Mythos. (Howard’s many pre-historic speculations on Atlantis, Valusia, and other aspects of Conan’s “Hyborian Age” would also be swept into the Mythos by Lovecraft and others in a pattern of mutual borrowing, so one could as easily refer to a “Weird Tales Mythos” as use the more familiar term “Cthulhu Mythos,” which of course was a label added only later by Lovecraft’s literary executor August Derleth.)

Price’s editorial remarks lend extra value to Nameless Cults; in addition to providing detailed information about the provenance of the stories included (some of which are fragments that have been finished by others), Price puts them into context as both a scholar of both Lovecraft and a theologian (Price has edited many of Chaosium’s books, as well as publishing books and articles on Christianity and editing Lovecraftian journals such as Crypt of Cthulhu). The most important insight Price brings is his consideration of the Mythos as a loose collection of themes and references rather than a continuity that must be reconciled and kept free of contradictions (as with fellow scholar S. T. Joshi, much of Price’s work has involved debunking Derleth’s spurious claims on behalf of Lovecraft and his creations, but in general Price’s perspective is more sympathetic to a multi-faceted rather than a purist approach). It’s this freedom that allows writers of different temperaments to make use of the Mythos and gives it the feeling of an actual mythology, scattered and secret but nonetheless organic.

It’s hard to think of a writer more different in temperament from H. P. Lovecraft than Robert E. Howard, at least as revealed in their stories. Lovecraft’s protagonists, to the extent that they are developed as characters at all, tend to be inward-looking scholars or antiquarians, drawn inexorably toward doom by curiosity or forces they do not understand. (An exception is Professor Henry Armitage, the hero of “The Dunwich Horror,” who is able to take charge and push back the demonic entities seeking entrance to our world.) Howard, however, puts the same kind of fearless, action-oriented warriors who populate his other stories into his horror tales (whether in a historical or fantasy setting or the contemporary world, the defining characteristics of Howard’s heroes are hyper-competence and a willingness to take action for what they believe is right, regardless of the cost–still the formula for an action hero today).

The contrast is amusingly illustrated in “The Challenge From Beyond,” a curious multi-author collaboration included in the Chaosium volume. At the end of Lovecraft’s chapter, the protagonist finds that he has been–horror of horrors!–transformed into “the loathsome, pale-grey bulk” of an alien centipede, and faints dead away: a typical Lovecraftian ending. As Howard picks up the thread in the next chapter, however, the hero’s perspective has changed and he begins to revel in the power of his new form, as “fear and revulsion were drowned in the excitement of titanic adventure”:

What was his former body but a cloak, eventually to be cast off at death anyway? He had no sentimental illusions about the life from which he had been exiled. What had it ever given him save toil, poverty, continual frustration and repression? If this life before him offered no more, at least it offered no less. Intuition told him it offered more–much more.

In Howardian fashion, “The Challenge From Beyond” changes from a story of horror to one of triumph, as the protagonist uses the strength of his new form to conquer the aliens and make himself their king, “a Conan among centipedes” in L. Sprague de Camp’s memorable phrase.

The physical bravery and strength that Howard considered so essential to being a hero (or a man, at that) actually tends to prop up the horror effects in his Cthulhu stories, however. The darkness is all the more terrifying when even such specimens cannot hope to defeat it; at best, victory means simply surviving. (It is unsurprising that Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” was a favorite of Howard’s, and its formula of investigation and action would prove a useful model for his occult detective fiction. It’s also, not coincidentally, the Lovecraft story that most resembles a Call of Cthulhu game scenario.)

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The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales, edited by M. J. Elliott as part of Wordsworth Editions’ “Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural” series, includes the best-known of Howard’s Cthulhu Mythos stories but also casts a wide net, including other horror and dark fantasy stories that cover a variety of subject matters and styles. Several of these stories, such as “In the Forest of Villefore” and “Wolfshead” (part of a werewolf cycle), are among the author’s earliest published works and show a still-raw talent. The volume also shows the range of genres that Howard explored in search of outlets for publication and introduces some of the author’s recurring characters: occult investigator John Kirowan and detective Steve Harrison, for example.

It also provides examples of Howard borrowing from his literary forebears and contemporaries: one of my favorites, the short novel “Skull-Face” (included in both the Chaosium and Wordsworth editions), is an entertaining pastiche of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels with the fantasy elements dialed up. Instead of the Chinese doctor, the titular villain is a survivor from the ancient past with scientific knowledge so advanced that it might as well be magic. (The hero of “Skull-Face,” Stephen Costigan, is not to be confused with another Howard series hero, Sailor Steve Costigan, but is an example of what Elliott describes as Howard’s “inexplicable fondness for certain character names.”)

If “Skull-Face” is Howard’s version of Rohmer, reading a number of Howard’s stories in close succession makes clearer the influence of other authors, even as in the best of his stories Howard’s own personality shines through. Even beyond its Mythos trappings, with its antiquarian protagonist and dreamy atmosphere “The Black Stone” is clearly modeled after Lovecraft, as Howard acknowledged in his own letters. Similarly, “The Dream Snake” and “The Fearsome Touch of Death” are indebted to Ambrose Bierce, with the implication that it is internal fears, not external threats, that are most destructive.

As Price points out in his introduction to Nameless Cults, the author who influenced Howard’s horror output most strongly besides Lovecraft was the Welsh Arthur Machen. In a number of Howard’s stories touching on reincarnation or racial memory and characterizing the “Little People” of myth as monstrous survivors of a pre-human race, “he has gone back to one of Lovecraft’s own sources, Arthur Machen, and remixed the Mythos, turning up the volume on the Machen track.”

Indeed, the recurring theme that unites both the stories of Conan, Pictish king Bran Mak Morn, and flashes of racial memory with his stories of the Cthulhu Mythos is the long shadow cast by the distant, prehistoric past, “Lurking memories of the ages when dawns were young and men struggled with forces which were not of men” (in the words of “The Little People”). Just as it was for Edgar Rice Burroughs, another important influence on Howard, that struggle against wild nature and subhuman savagery was a defining one for both character and narrative, and as with Burroughs it sometimes manifested in Howard’s work as a racial scheme in which tall, white-skinned, “clean-limbed” Aryans (a term borrowed from the anthropology of the time, but which is particularly regrettable with modern hindsight) swept Westward throughout Europe (and later America), routing the short, swarthy tribes that became the basis for legends of goblins and the hidden races of Machen, Lovecraft, and others. (But as Price points out, Howard was able to have it both ways by making the underdog Picts into heroes pitted against an even older, more secretive and less human race, as in “Worms of the Earth.”)

In these stories and others, the modern reader runs headlong into Howard’s sometimes objectionable racial characterizations: stories set in the deep South and Southwest include epithets for black and Mexican characters, sometimes in dialogue, but sometimes as part of the narration or from the viewpoints of characters who are supposed to be sympathetic. As in my discussion of representation in the serials from the same time period, it is pointless to pretend that such attitudes and words weren’t part of the world of at least some in Howard’s time, and pointing out parts of Howard’s work that haven’t aged well need not imply a disavowal of the strong parts of his fiction.

And perhaps it is simply my modern perspective, but I think it is telling that in general Howard’s strongest stories take a more nuanced point of view, with characters of all races showing both good and bad qualities. As Rusty Burke points out in his introduction to Del Rey’s The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, the interaction of common racial prejudices in Howard’s native Texas with the author’s natural sympathy for the underdog and belief that ultimately a man is what he makes of himself led to some complex characterizations. The flip side of his often-stated distrust of civilization and its stultifying effects, Howard showed great admiration for native peoples who (in his admittedly romanticized view) lived close to nature; one of his wisest characters was the African “medicine man” N’Longa, friend and advisor to Solomon Kane.

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The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard is the longest (over 520 pages) and most comprehensive collection at my disposal, and yet even it omits stories that may be found in the others (“Skull-Face” is the most notable absence, possibly left out because of its length). It does, however, cover the broadest range of Howard’s output, including Cthulhoid horror, sword and sorcery, regional horror (Western and Southern, including “Pigeons From Hell”), and contemporary adventure stories, as well as samples of Howard’s seafaring, boxing, and detective fiction.

The Del Rey volume also includes four unfinished stories, grouped as “Miscellanea,” and there is more bibliographic detail than in either the Baen or Wordsworth volumes, listing first publication (or manuscript source in the case of posthumously discovered stories) and detailed notes on changes in spelling or punctuation made by the editor.

It is also the only volume to include more than a few of Howard’s numerous poems. Like his fellow Weird Tales contributors H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, Howard was a prolific versifier, and like them he remained largely conservative in the face of modernism, sticking to rhyming, metric poems. Most of his poetry has a rough-hewn, deliberately “barbaric” quality, often cast in multi-stanza ballad forms with rhyming couplets: appropriate for his subjects, usually as dark and gruesome as those he favored in his stories. Although it is unlikely that Howard’s poems will ever be popular outside of weird fiction (and heavy metal) fandom, they contain some vivid and concise images, such as the following lines in “Dead Man’s Hate”:

There was no sound on Adam Brand but his brow was cold and damp,
For the fear of death had blown out his life as a witch blows out a lamp.

It is often treacherous to psychoanalyze a writer based on their fiction, but to an extent horror writers invite it: the best are not simply calculating what they think will scare their audience, but are delving into and externalizing their own fears. That’s not to say that horror writers necessarily believe in what they’re writing (crackpot theories that Lovecraft possessed secret knowledge of real-life Cthulhu cults notwithstanding), but their choices can be revealing.

Robert E. Howard’s own tragic story (he committed suicide at age 30 after his mother slipped into her final coma) is at odds with the implacable supermen he created, but even in his stories he often hinted that death was preferable to a life of pain or defeat. Elliott singles out a passage in “Skull-Face” in which recovering opium addict Stephen Costigan ponders drowning himself, “that I should soon attain that Ultimate Ocean which lies beyond all dreams.”

The stoicism with which Costigan considers ending his life is of a piece with the pragmatism and toughness of most of Howard’s characters, but there is another side to Howard that tends to be overlooked, the dreamy, “feminine” side that gave us the “mad poet” Justin Geoffrey. Geoffrey is often seen as a portrait of Howard’s friend and correspondent H. P. Lovecraft, and he does resemble Lovecraft’s typical protagonists, often so removed from this world that their weird art or poetry are perfect channels for the “outside” influences of the Cthulhu Mythos to find their way in. Nevertheless, if, as Lovecraft himself argued, “the real secret [of Howard’s characters] is that he himself is in every one of them,” then Geoffrey is certainly a facet of Howard’s personality. Robert M. Price goes further, saying of Geoffrey,

Here is Howard with a vengeance, the real Howard in a far deeper sense than either Balthus [“a realistic depiction of Howard compared with Conan, the idealized version”] or Steve Costigan. Justin Geoffrey is the archetypal Byronic artist too sensitive for this mortal coil, a frail human funnel for the whirlwinds sweeping down from between the stars.

Justin Geoffrey would die “screaming in a madhouse,” a fate that Howard possibly predicted for himself, and to which he found suicide preferable.

An even more revealing self-portrait can be found in the unfinished story “Spectres in the Dark,” included in The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard. In this fragment, unseen forces hiding in the shadows drive otherwise normal individuals to commit murder. One such unwitting killer is Clement Van Dorn, an artist who finds himself accused of killing his mentor. Visiting him in jail, Van Dorn’s friends find him in a pathetic state:

Clement nodded but there was no spark of hope in his eyes, only a bleak and baffled despair. He was not suited to cope with the rough phases of life, which until now he had never encountered. A weakling, morally and physically, he was learning in a hard school that savage fact of biology–that only the strong survive.

Suddenly Joan held out her arms to him, her mothering instinct which all women have touched to the quick by his helplessness. Like a lost child he threw himself on his knees before her, laid his head in her lap, his frail body racked with great sobs as she stroked his hair, whispering gently to him–like a mother to her child. His hands sought hers and held them as if they were his hope of salvation. The poor devil; he had no place in this rough world; he was made to be mothered and cared for by women–like so many others of his kind.

That Robert E. Howard’s career was cut short by suicide, just as the author was developing his voice and was about to see his work published outside of the pulps, is a loss for readers. That he felt so compelled to end his own life was a tragedy for him. Perhaps the most fitting conclusion is in the words of David Drake, editor of The Mythos and Kindred Horrors, among the first words about Howard that I encountered:

Robert E. Howard had the personal misfortune to spend most of his life in a place where black hatreds ruled everyone; where currents of violence so closely underlay the surface of ordinary existence that a snub, a woman, or the ethnic background of a chance acquaintance was apt to bring a lethal outburst; where a man’s only path to respect was through strength and his willingness to use that strength.

Drake is referring, of course, not to West Texas, where Howard lived, nor even the fictional Hyboria that Howard set down on paper, but the interior of Howard’s mind, “a grim, dark place,” from which writing tales of adventure, fantasy, and even horror allowed Howard to escape . . . for a time.

Appendix: Contents of editions under discussion (titles in italic text indicate poems)

Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors
Edited and with an introduction by David Drake (Baen Books, 1987)

Arkham
The Black Stone
The Fire of Asshurbanipal
The Thing on the Roof
Dig Me No Grave
Silence Falls On Mecca’s Walls
The Valley of the Worm
The Shadow of the Beast
Old Garfield’s Heart
People of the Dark
Worms of the Earth
Pigeons From Hell
An Open Window

Nameless Cults: The Cthulhu Mythos Fiction of Robert E. Howard
Edited and Introduced by Robert M. Price (Chaosium Call of Cthulhu Fiction, 2001)

The Black Stone
Worms of the Earth
The Little People
People of the Dark
The Children of the Night
The Thing on the Roof
The Abbey (w/ C. J. Henderson)
The Fire of Asshurbanipal
The Door to the World (w/ Joseph S. Pulver)
The Hoofed Thing
Dig Me No Grave
The House in the Oaks (w/ August Derleth)
The Black Bear Bites
The Shadow Kingdom
The Gods of Bal-Sagoth
Skull-Face
Black Eons (w/ Robert M. Price)
The Challenge from Beyond (w/ C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, and Frank Belknap Long)

The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales
Compiled and Introduced by M. J. Elliott (Wordsworth Editions, Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural, 2008)

In the Forest of Villefore
Wolfshead
The Dream Snake
The Hyena
Sea Curse
Skull-Face
The Fearsome Touch of Death
The Children of the Night
The Black Stone
The Thing on the Roof
The Horror from the Mound
People of the Dark
The Cairn on the Headland
Black Talons
Fangs of Gold
Names in the Black Book
The Haunter of the Ring
Graveyard Rats
Black Wind Blowing
The Fire of Asshurbanipal
Pigeons from Hell

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
Introduction by Rusty Burke; Illustrated by Greg Staples (Del Rey, 2008)

In the Forest of Villefère
A Song of the Werewolf Folk
Wolfshead
Up, John Kane!
Remembrance
The Dream Snake
Sea Curse
The Moor Ghost
Moon Mockery
The Little People
Dead Man’s Hate
The Tavern
Rattle of Bones
The Fear That Follows
The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux
Casonetto’s Last Song
The Touch of Death
Out of the Deep
A Legend of Faring Town
Restless Waters
The Shadow of the Beast
The Dead Slaver’s Tale
Dermod’s Bane
The Hills of the Dead
Dig Me No Grave
The Song of a Mad Minstrel
The Children of the Night
Musings
The Black Stone
The Thing on the Roof
The Dweller in Dark Valley
The Horror from the Mound
A Dull Sound as of Knocking
People of the Dark
Delenda Est
The Cairn on the Headland
Worms of the Earth
The Symbol
The Valley of the Lost
The Hoofed Thing
The Noseless Horror
The Dwellers Under the Tomb
An Open Window
The House of Arabu
The Man on the Ground
Old Garfield’s Heart
Kelly the Conjure-Man
Black Canaan
To a Woman
One Who Comes at Eventide
The Haunter of the Ring
Pigeons from Hell
The Dead Remember
The Fire of Asshurbanipal
Fragment
Which Will Scarcely Be Understood

Miscellanea:
Golnor the Ape
Spectres in the Dark
The House
Untitled Fragment

Cowboys & Aliens: A Reappraisal

Following last week’s look at the odd history of the science-fiction Western, I offer a more detailed defense of 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens (warning: spoilers ahead). Like my article on Addicted to Love, this was written as an entry for Lovefest, an ongoing series organized by commenters on film website The Dissolve. The only requirement for Lovefest is that it is an appreciation of a movie that flopped, was panned by critics, and/or is generally forgotten.

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The title Cowboys & Aliens promises a high-concept romp. In interviews featured on the Blu-ray, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and director Jon Favreau mention that the title alone of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s comic book series got them excited, and perhaps Universal’s marketers assumed that audiences would be similarly turned on by the prospect of B-movie thrills in a genre mash-up. Further, the involvement of Favreau, known for witty banter and a slyly comic approach (whether directing Will Ferrell in a Christmas comedy or setting the template for Marvel’s superhero franchise with Robert Downey, Jr.), probably fed expectations that this would be more of the same.

Instead of the fun promised by the title, however, audiences got a fairly serious, even grim, drama that was surprisingly gruesome for its PG-13 rating and included moments of outright horror. (In the same featurettes, the filmmakers mention the inspiration they drew from Alien, but I don’t remember that being highlighted in the trailers.) There is some comic relief and plenty of action, but it’s not really a lighthearted movie. One never really knows how a movie will perform, but considering the talent involved and that audiences and critics claim to want original* blockbusters, a less generic title and more accurate marketing might have given the film a better chance. While a viewer might agree with everything I have to say and still not find this movie to their taste, fans of other maligned films like John Carter and The Lone Ranger will probably find something to enjoy in Cowboys & Aliens.

*In this case, “original” is a fuzzy concept: Cowboys & Aliens is original in the sense that it is neither sequel nor remake (even the comic book on which the film is based is hardly a well-known property, and appears to have been optioned solely for the name and concept), but it treads in well-worn pathways, featuring characters who are familiar by type if not by name.

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Set in 1875 New Mexico, Cowboys & Aliens begins with a man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert, injured and with no memory of who he is. On his wrist is a strange metal shackle; in his pocket, a picture of a woman (Abigail Spencer). After brutally fending off an assault by three highwaymen, this literal Man With No Name makes his way to a depressed mining town called Absolution. He makes the acquaintance of a pragmatic preacher (Clancy Brown) and a strange woman, Ella (Olivia Wilde), who recognizes the shackle and says she can help him recover his memory. An obvious man of action, the stranger can’t help but insert himself into a scene caused by Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), a bullying, loudmouthed twerp who takes advantage of the protection of his father (Harrison Ford), the local cattle king whose business keeps the town alive.

Provoked by the take-no-shit stranger, Percy fires his gun carelessly, hitting a nearby deputy in the shoulder. The sheriff (Keith Carradine) has no choice but to lock Percy up, but he quickly realizes that the newcomer is Jake Lonergan, wanted for stealing a shipment of gold that belongs to Colonel Dolarhyde and for the murder of a prostitute; Lonergan gets locked up, too.

As night falls, the sheriff prepares to deliver both Percy and Lonergan to a judge in Santa Fe, and Colonel Dolarhyde and his men show up to stop him. Dolarhyde is first shown torturing a man whom he suspects of killing one of his herds (actually the work of the titular aliens, of course), and he has no qualms about using force to free his son or enacting rough justice on the man who stole from him.

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Just as all of these strands of plot are coming together, the aliens attack from the air, causing explosive mayhem with their lasers and pulling townspeople into the air with lasso-like snares. When the aliens’ ships come in range, the bracelet on Lonergan’s wrist lights up, and he finds that he can use it as a powerful blaster; he shoots down one of the gliders, but it is too late to halt the attack completely. In the chaos, Percy is among those captured, as are the sheriff and the wife of Doc (Sam Rockwell), the town’s meek doctor/barkeep.

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From here, the main plot is set in motion: Dolarhyde takes command of the situation and plans a rescue party, believing that the townspeople were taken alive for a reason. (“If they wanted ‘em dead, they’d be dead,” he says. “This was a round-up.”) Joining the search party are the tenderfoot doctor, who doesn’t even own a gun, and a young boy, Emmett (Noah Ringer), the sheriff’s grandson; Ella also joins for her own reasons, but Lonergan chooses not to go, even as Dolarhyde urges him to add his strange weapon to the search.

Where Cowboys & Aliens is most successful is in taking the premises of classic Westerns and alien-invasion stories seriously. The Western townspeople, while stock character types, are neither fools nor gifted with period-inappropriate knowledge. The film begins with several mundane plots in motion: there are no cardboard slasher victims, standing around waiting for the action to start. Further, they behave as any nineteenth-century person of average education might when faced with something beyond their understanding: when the aliens strike, some wonder if they are being attacked by demons, and they probably wouldn’t seek out trouble if they weren’t trying to retrieve their kidnapped loved ones. The film doesn’t count on the characters to relay exposition about aliens: we see the action through their eyes and fill in the details with our own genre experience.

As Lonergan’s memories gradually return, he visits an abandoned cabin, where he remembers bringing the stolen gold to his lover (the woman whose picture he had, and whom he is accused of killing), with the intention of starting over somewhere far away. In the first of several eerie flashbacks, the gold coins are melted into slag and sucked through the roof of the cabin by a mysterious force, and then one of the aliens’ skyhooks pierces the roof and captures the woman.

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After finding nothing at the cabin, Lonergan joins the search party, which has been tracking an injured alien. The main tracker, a Mexican Indian named Nat (Adam Beach), is Dolarhyde’s hired man and Percy’s companion and protector, but is more importantly everything Percy isn’t: brave, competent, and honorable. To Dolarhyde, however, Nat is just a thick-skulled Indian.

After losing the tracks in a rainstorm, the party comes across an upside-down riverboat, stranded miles from any river. The searchers hole up in the eerie, decaying boat for the night, and several character arcs begin to unfold: the preacher helps Doc practice shooting; Dolarhyde reluctantly takes Emmett under his wing, giving him a knife for protection; Nat inadvertently reveals how much Dolarhyde has been a father figure to him, but is rebuked.

Will Doc learn to shoot in time to help save his wife? Will that knife come in handy just when Emmett needs it? Will Dolarhyde come to appreciate the surrogate son who has been in front of him the whole time? Most importantly, will Lonergan regain his memory and redeem himself after his former life of crime, coming to an understanding with the similarly hardened Civil War veteran Colonel Dolarhyde? If you can’t guess the answers to those questions, then you haven’t seen very many Westerns or sci-fi action movies.

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It is worth emphasizing that Cowboys & Aliens presents a distinctly cinematic version of both the genres it combines: it is primarily an action movie with a secondary focus on character. Neither the history of the West nor a philosophy of science have any particular bearing on events, other than an awareness of the passing of the Indian in the face of white migration (something that is at the heart of many Westerns, but which is also, as we shall see, of thematic importance to Cowboys & Aliens).

As mentioned, the characters are archetypes of Western fiction; their familiarity helps us take sides right away. Also, whether consciously or not, Cowboys & Aliens exploits the fact that early filmed sci-fi took advantage of the rocky, arid terrain of the Southwest to stand in for alien planets. (The association of science fiction with desert landscapes has long literary associations, as well.) The same caves and canyons around Hollywood that were backdrops for Johnny Mack Brown and Tom Mix served just as well for the surface of the moon or the planet Mongo a few years later.

This is more than just convenience or historical association: it contributes vitally to the tone of the film. In an essay entitled “The Alien Landscapes of the Planet Earth: Science Fiction in the Fifties,” Vivian Sobchak points out that lonely, desolate places on earth have more power to awaken terror than visions of advanced technology that inevitably become dated with the passage of time. In Sobchak’s words, “What we wonder at today, we may laugh at tomorrow. But the desert and the beach, the wind and the sea, the black lagoon and the frozen stretches of Arctic ice do not date, and will never lose their power to awe and disturb us.”

The power Sobchak describes is what the romantics called the sublime, the combination of wonder and terror one experiences in the face of the vast works of nature such as the storm, or the sea . . . or the desert. It is what often makes even the lousiest Western worth watching for its panoramic vistas of the great plains, the deserts of the Southwest, or formations such as Monument Valley. Against the grain of much modern filmmaking, Cowboys & Aliens was filmed on location in New Mexico: all of its settings are real, physical places, even the spaceship interior sets; the aliens and their technology are brought to life with a mixture of CG and practical effects; and the daytime scenes are filmed with natural light. (Director of Photography Matthew Libatique is best known as a long-time collaborator with Darren Aronofsky, and had previously worked with Favreau on the first two Iron Man movies.) It is as real as a film about cowboys fighting alien invaders can be, and its sense of place is a powerful asset.**

**It also sounds great: composer Harry Gregson-Williams had the job of effectively scoring two movies, but his score fits together and bridges the gap between genres very effectively.

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In the films Sobchak was writing about (largely low-budget monster and alien-invasion movies such as Them! and It Came From Outer Space), the scope and ruggedness of natural settings are only part of their effectiveness in setting mood: they are also isolated. The tension in these films is in part a product of their settings’ loneliness and distance from help, and the frisson generated when encountering something that doesn’t belong where no one should be: “strange inhuman footprints on an impressionable beach,” to cite one of Sobchak’s examples. Cowboys & Aliens features exactly that trope, with Indian tracker Nat following the trail of footprints left by the alien.

Tracking is an important part of Western lore, and the Indian scout is one of several archetypal characters the movie presents. The anxiety and eeriness of seeing the alien footprints is only slightly greater than that a settler might have experienced upon finding prints in unknown territory: do they belong to friend or foe? In that strange world west of the tree line, the unknown almost always represented danger.

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Another common visual motif of science fiction is the juxtaposition of the natural and the artificial, or the primitive and the high-tech (in his essay “The Science Fiction Film Image,”*** Fred Chappell identifies this as one of five types of incongruity that can make an image recognizably science fictional: “the spaceship in the wilderness” and “the spaceman among alien aborigines” are two examples he gives). The riverboat, already made eerie by its landlocked, overturned state, is half-overgrown with weeds, and rain water filters through its cracked floors and ceilings. It’s an image of nature and technology in collision, and its wrongness foreshadows the searchers’ ultimate destination, a tower-like spaceship hidden among the rock formations of a remote canyon. In Cowboys & Aliens, the aliens are the spacemen, the humans the aborigines, a very effective reversal of common imagery (more about this momentarily).

***Both Vivian Sobchak’s and Fred Chappell’s essays are found in the Monarch Film Studies volume Science Fiction Films, edited by Thomas R. Atkins.

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Unbeknownst to the group, the injured alien is also hiding in the riverboat, and this sequence of the movie recalls Alien’s “haunted house” formula; the first clear view of the alien reveals it as a tall, vaguely humanoid creature with a mixture of reptilian and insectoid features (including, most disturbingly, a breastplate that opens to reveal a pair of tiny, grasping forelimbs for fine manipulation, a clear nod to the mouth-within-a-mouth of H. R. Giger’s xenomorph). The alien picks off a few members of the party, including the preacher, and escapes.

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The next morning, after picking up the alien’s fresh tracks, the party runs afoul of a gang of robbers: some of Lonergan’s old crew, now run by a dufus named Hunt (Walton Goggins). Lonergan, still not completely recovered from his amnesia, plays along and asks Hunt to take him back to the gang’s camp. It’s there that he learns that he had left the gang high and dry, taking their share of the stolen gold in order to run away with his woman. The gang isn’t too willing to have him back, and they threaten the members of the search party. Another aerial attack by the aliens interrupts them.

Ella is taken by one of the aliens’ lassos, and Lonergan manages to jump onto the ship carrying her, blowing it up with the blaster; they both land in the water, but Ella is wounded by the ship’s alien pilot, who also escaped the crash of his craft. Lonergan carries Ella back to the search party, but it’s too late: she is dead.

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The party is surrounded by an Apache tribe on horseback who take them back to their encampment. Dolarhyde’s anti-Indian attitudes come to the fore, but Nat is able to translate and keep the two groups from killing each other. When Ella’s body is thrown onto a funeral pyre, it releases a burst of energy and she comes back to life: she is the last of her kind, one of another race that had already been wiped out by the aliens, and who has been following them to make sure no other world suffers the same fate as her home. Finally we get a little exposition: the aliens are part of a scouting mission, looking for gold (“It’s as rare to them as it is to you,” she explains) and abducting humans to perform tests and analyze their weaknesses in advance of a full invasion force.

Even when it’s clearer what is happening, there is no outpouring of foreign names or history, no grand mythology of which this film is only a single episode; in an era of incessant franchise-building, it’s refreshing to see such a self-contained story. (If the film’s poor performance has one bright side, it’s that we weren’t subjected to a series of increasingly convoluted and unsatisfying sequels.)

Because of its singularity—there is only a single scout ship, destroyed by the humans by the end of the movie—and its remoteness from civilization, this is a story that can take place without rewriting known history. It has a level of plausible deniability: even if the characters were to share their story at some point, who would believe them? (I don’t know if it was intentional, but this alien-invasion story fits neatly with the nineteenth-century “airship mysteries” that are sometimes cited as proto-UFO phenomena, not to mention the various hoaxes that filled newspapers of the time.)

In a sweat lodge ceremony, the Apaches help Lonergan recover the rest of his memories in a deeply unsettling sequence: a hard-to-place memory of his lover lying next to him is revealed to be her vivisection at the hands of an alien scientist, before her disintegration right before Lonergan’s eyes. In the flashback, he is strapped to a table, awaiting his turn to be tested and then exterminated. He remembers how the alien’s carelessness gave him the chance to steal its weapon and use it to escape, his mind still scrambled by a hypnotic light the aliens used to keep their captives docile.

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At this point, all the threads come together for the big finish: Nat helps Dolarhyde reach an accommodation with the Apaches (who have also lost many of their people to the aliens) by explaining that Dolarhyde raised him like a son, even though they were not blood, and Lonergan rides out to convince his old gang to join the fight. The townspeople, gang members, and Apaches converge on the aliens’ base, a spaceship half buried in the ground in a remote canyon, disguised to look like the rocks around it. (I personally love scenes where erstwhile foes join together to defeat a common foe, like the gangsters and G-men standing up to the Nazis in The Rocketeer. If Cowboys & Aliens could be described as Independence Day in the Old West, at least it has more nuance than that film.)

The images of alien footprints and the alien vessel in the canyon are doorways from which the Western transitions into science fiction in Cowboys & Aliens, but they are also reminders that the Western is already a kind of science fiction, a historically-based example of Isaac Asimov’s definition of science fiction as “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.” Although not always the central focus of Western stories, the telegraph, the railroad, the Winchester rifle, and even the horse—introduced by the conquistadors, and which transformed the plains tribes before settlers had even crossed the Mississippi—are clear examples of new technologies affecting entire civilizations. (Technological superiority alone does not account for the relentless expansion of colonists at the expense of Native peoples, but it is surely a significant factor.) Even if white settlers had been wholly benign, Native culture could not have avoided changing through contact and trade with them.

Cowboys & Aliens puts all its human characters, white and Indian alike, in the position of natives faced with conquerors who vastly outgun them (and will also outnumber them in the event of a full-scale invasion). The Apaches and whites, who otherwise would have no cause to trust or associate with each other, have a good reason to work together here. The aliens see humanity as a mere inconvenience, almost beneath notice, fit only to exploit and experiment upon; they sweep in and take what they want, in a pattern of conquest that (according to Ella) has happened again and again. Human beings are even compared explicitly to cattle, first by being roped up and taken, and then by being penned while they await slaughter. The movie doesn’t hit us over the head with it, but it isn’t subtle.

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The film is at its most horrifying not when the searchers are being picked off by a lone alien in the upside-down riverboat, but in Lonergan’s memories and his return to the spaceship. Watching his lover disposed of as a science experiment; finding piles of pocket watches and glasses from past victims; the prisoners herded together as a nameless mass awaiting their turn—and Lonergan remembering himself as one of them: these are images not just of genocide, but of Holocaust, the scientist-alien (whom the filmmakers in their commentary describe tellingly as the uber-alien) as Dr. Mengele. It is this, more than anything else in the film, that likely made it so hard to swallow for audiences who only wanted a Western lark with a twist, an afternoon with the kids to sit in air conditioning and eat popcorn, and it makes the cannibalism and Indian slaughter of The Lone Ranger seem measured by comparison.

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Finally, a few words about the cast: it’s loaded with well-known stars and terrific character actors, but as we all know that doesn’t always lead to a good movie. In this case, however, the cast has great chemistry; most of the actors are familiar faces with experience in Westerns and do many of their own stunts, adding to the sense of lived-in reality. Daniel Craig is a natural as a bad man who finds himself capable of heroism, and Olivia Wilde’s otherworldly beauty makes her an excellent choice for her role; the supporting cast is also a pleasure to watch. I’d like to single out Harrison Ford, however, for the best performance he’s given in years. Colonel Dolarhyde is the kind of tight-lipped grouch Ford has been playing for the last decade-plus, but here he doesn’t come off as a pampered, over-the-hill star marking time until he can get back to flying his plane. His anger, his disappointment in his son, and the bitterness that has grown into a thick shell around him feel genuine, and his last scenes with Nat are moving in the best hey-I’m-not-crying-it’s-just-getting-awfully-dusty-in-here guys’-movie tradition. In the interviews on the Blu-ray, Ford mentions that he’s playing the old man role, mostly talking while Craig does all the stunts. It’s an exaggeration, but it points to a relationship that plays out on screen, with the grudging respect that develops between the two men unfolding naturally. Harrison Ford is really acting in this one, guys: see it and believe it.

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My 2014 in Film

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Another year is coming to an end, and with it another slate of new film releases. As I did last year, I came up with my own (necessarily incomplete) list: not necessarily the “best” of the year, but my favorite movies and other pop culture among those I was able to catch in the last twelve months. And unlike last year, I’m including a list of some non-2014 movies I caught up with for the first time.

I didn’t keep a list of movies I watched (other than the list I kept during October), but perhaps I should have, as this was a big year for me to catch up on movies. Keeping a list is not a passive act, however: with list-making comes the desire to add to the list, to see it grow. For my rather meager reading this year, that’s a good thing, but if I had kept track of movies I watched I might have tried to watch even more than I did, and felt as drained as I did after my October marathon. Still, lists are great for looking back at what you did, watched, or read over the year: January seems awfully long ago when I look back at what I was doing then.

I saw sixteen 2014 releases, either in the theater or at home. There are several I still haven’t seen, such as Interstellar and The Babadook, that I expect to respond to when I catch up with them, but here are my top three favorites so far:

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3. The Grand Budapest Hotel. I’m a sucker for writer/director Wes Anderson’s carefully-curated style, and I was particularly receptive to this multi-layered story, set in the fictional Alpine nation of Zubrowka. I had a Czech composition professor who always bristled at the term “Eastern Europe,” and liked to point out that Prague is actually to the West of Vienna; it was hard not to think of him, and of a summer trip to Prague, when watching this. Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, Anderson gets the sense of being at the crossroads of East and West, of being somewhere off the map, and of “small” countries’ determination to hold onto their idiosyncrasies in the face of empire, be it political or cultural. In addition, the majority of the film is set in the early 1930s, the anxious period of fascist uprisings that would inevitably lead to war and sweep away the old world that the titular hotel and its dapper concierge (Ralph Fiennes) represent. The juxtaposition of a farcical caper with looming historical tragedy gives the standard Andersonian business a more directly political edge than usual, and is a good fit with the sadness that is often just under the surface of Anderson’s whimsy.

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2. Whiplash. Between this film, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, and Grand Piano, which Chazelle wrote, I think I have a favorite new filmmaker. Whiplash’s story of an ambitious student drummer (Miles Teller) and the punishing, even sadistic treatment he receives at the hands of his jazz band director (J. K. Simmons) examines the personal price of artistic ambition in a way that is more brutally honest (emphasis on “brutally”) than most films about budding artists and their mentors usually are. In fact, while the plot has the twists and turns of a taut thriller, the tantrums, self-laceration, and even the explosions of violence in the film don’t seem that exaggerated, bringing to mind both certain high-strung individuals I’ve known as a musician, and the hazing scandals that have afflicted some high-profile college bands in recent years. It also manages to leave the ultimate question—is it all worth it?—up to the audience to decide. The film makes a fitting and devastating postscript to the series of films about bands and inspirational music teachers I wrote about this fall; Mister Holland’s Opus, it ain’t.

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1. The Lego Movie. Sure, it’s a film for kids—a feature-length toy commercial, even. But even after repeated viewing, it’s a stunning technical and aesthetic achievement that has something meaningful to say about the creative process and relationships. Honestly, I could just look at the billowing ocean of Lego bricks for hours; the fact that the characters are so vibrant is a bonus, and a testament to the writing and direction of Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The notion that each of the main Master Builder characters represent a creative type (or a single facet of a creative mind) is an easy leap to make (it could be a Buzzfeed quiz: “Which Lego Master Builder are you?”), but I’ll be darned if I don’t relate to Uni-Kitty’s desperate attempts to stay positive in the face of disaster, or Wyldstyle’s—that is, Lucy’s—repeated reinventions and desire to be “edgy.” The beautiful thing about the story is how it brings together and values the contributions of all kinds of personalities, even while recognizing that everyone has flaws. It’s a great example of something I’ve long felt: that broadly-drawn characters, even cartoons, can still have feelings, and it makes The Lego Movie one of the most humane films of the year.

Honorable Mention: I was charmed by the Swedish import We Are the Best!, as low-key in its depiction of three middle school girls who form a punk band as Whiplash was intense. Directed by Lukas Moodysson, We Are the Best! is mostly slice-of-life, drawing much of its comedy from the contrast between the girls’ bravado and their meager talent, but it never makes them the butt of the joke. Rather, it’s the clueless adults who don’t know what to make of the trio, whether it’s one girl’s dad trying to join their “jam session” on the clarinet, or the manager of the activity center where they rehearse underestimating the lead guitarist (the only one of the three who can actually play).

This was also a good year for blockbuster entertainments: although I chose not to rank more than four movies, I enjoyed Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as Gareth Edwards’ revival of Godzilla. I was late seeing Godzilla, so I had already heard that the big lizard doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but it was almost comical how Edwards contrived to keep him off screen, hidden behind smoke, buildings, or even closing doors. I can’t help but feel that some of the complaints were driven by viewers who hadn’t seen the original Toho films, which also often kept the monsters off screen for the majority of their running times. If anything, my biggest complaint was an over-reliance on coincidence to keep star Aaron Taylor-Johnson at the center of the action, but, you know, movies.

Other highlights

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Some of the best movies I saw this year were older ones; first-time non-2014 movies that I loved include (in no particular order) Nothing Lasts Forever, TerrorVision, A Town Called Panic, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Haunted Palace, Matinee, Gang Busters, The Visitor, Eraserhead, Strike Up the Band, Drumline, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Thoroughly Modern Millie.

I’m also glad I had the opportunity to see The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in a beautiful 4k restoration last October; as someone who didn’t enjoy horror films as a kid, I never thought I would go out of my way to see this film, but I knew I would regret it if I passed up the opportunity. I took the precaution of inviting a horror-savvy friend to go with me so I wouldn’t chicken out, but it turned out he hadn’t seen it either! As so often happens, it wasn’t nearly as scary as I had built up in my mind. Suspenseful? Yes. Graphic? Very. Horrifying? Sure. But after decades of imitators, I realized that in a way I had already seen it, by way of the influence that trickled down through the numerous slasher movies that followed. The next day, I heard chainsaws running all day, as my neighbors were cutting down a tree; it didn’t freak me out, but it tickled me to imagine that they were extending my TCSM experience beyond the theater, like Disney Imagineers.

Lowlights

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The worst 2014 release I saw this year was Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which was both mean-spirited and tried way too hard to be edgy; it felt very much like a throwback to Dreamworks’ snarky, post-Shrek output, and I am mystified by the middling-to-positive reviews it received. Even my kids didn’t seem to enjoy it that much, and quickly forgot about it.

First-time non-2014 films that didn’t do much for me included Radar Men From the Moon, the 1961 Babes in Toyland (which had Ray Bolger and not much else), the 1960 13 Ghosts (with Margaret Hamilton—maybe a retrospective of Wizard of Oz cast members’ careers is in order), and Demons, which started out really promising but lost me about halfway through. The most ridiculous movies I saw this year include the 1952 Bloodhounds of Broadway, Shanghai Surprise, and Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, although I’m probably forgetting some.

Thanks for reading and watching along with me this year. I hope you’ll return in 2015!

More Lovecraft at The Solute

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During last month’s horror movie marathon I caught up with several film adaptations of stories by H. P. Lovecraft. I first wrote about two fairly faithful twenty-first century adaptations by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society at The Solute, and after much delay I’ve put together my impressions of three films from American International Pictures: Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace (1963), and Daniel Haller’s Die, Monster, Die! (1965) and The Dunwich Horror (1970). Although as a recovering Lovecraft purist I was skeptical of the AIP adaptations, I did find much to enjoy in them, and watching all three in a row provided an interesting overview of horror’s changing face in the 1960s. The article can be read at The Solute.