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.

I Stood in Line for an Hour to Watch Stephen King on Television

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Like something straight out of the hit film The Lawnmower Man, a futuristic digital simulacrum of author Stephen King manifested in one of the “overflow rooms” of the Hughes Metroplex at Wichita State University on Friday. King visited Wichita as part of the tour supporting his newest novel, Revival, and while I arrived early to hear him speak, I didn’t arrive quite early enough. The event (a reading from the new book, some prepared remarks, and a Q&A) was to start at 6 pm; having secured my ticket before they quickly sold out last month, I thought I’d head over to the Metroplex at about 5, giving myself plenty of time for travel and parking. Around 4:30, my wife noticed a Facebook post from a friend who was already there: the line was three quarters of the way around the building already. I hopped in the car and left, just barely finding a place to park. The line was fully around the building by this time (about 5), and many more people got in line after me. It took an hour for the line to wind back around, an hour of standing in near-freezing weather; at least it wasn’t raining or snowing. Quite a few people gave up and left, or didn’t bother queuing up when they saw the size of the crowd.

To make matters worse, the event was oversold: only the first 1700 ticket holders would be seated in the auditorium, and to get in the auditorium you had to have a wristband, which they started issuing at 4 pm. This information was on the event’s website, but not printed on the ticket:

Seating at the event is general admission. Once the Lowe Auditorium is full, the remaining attendees will be seated in overflow rooms with excellent, live audio / visual feed to Mr. King’s presentation.

So perhaps I was naive not to expect something like this, but based on the number of people who gave up, and the backlash mentioned in the Wichita Eagle‘s coverage of the event, I wasn’t the only one unpleasantly surprised. Needless to say, I was in the “overflow.”

But enough bitching. How was the presentation? It was fine: although King protested that he was terrified of large crowds and implied that he was at best a reluctant public speaker (supported by the fact that the Revival tour would only have six stops), he had an easy-going, conversational tone and was engaging and relaxed. A slight cold didn’t noticeably slow him down: he promised us it wasn’t ebola, and on that note observed that every time a new flu strain hit the news, sales of The Stand spiked. He sounded much like he writes, at least his non-fiction: I never once heard him use the word “fuckeroo” (although the sample he read from Revival did include “whoremaster,” another King standby).

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I’m more interested in King’s creative process than his books these days. That’s not to say I won’t read Revival, a copy of which was included with the ticket price. But even King’s diehard fans tend to take his books as they come these days, cherishing the good ones and shrugging off the disappointments as part of the cost of being a fan of this most prolific of authors. King is like a baseball player, grinding out a season’s worth of games, day in and day out, and even the Hall of Famers don’t hit home runs every time they go up to the plate.

The unevenness of King’s work has a lot to do with his intuitive approach and (reported) two thousand words a day: early on, King observed that he is “not an organized writer,” to which I responded “NO SHIT” in my notes. King said that every story begins with an image, and the process of writing is one of exploring the implications of that image and asking what happens next. He compared it to pulling a thread from a mouse hole: sometimes the thread is as short as a few pages’ worth of story, and sometimes it’s as long as a novel. And since King doesn’t know where it’s leading any more than the reader does, there’s always the possibility that the ending won’t be satisfying, or that it won’t be what he thought it would be when he began. Sometimes characters turn out to be stronger than he expected (he cited ‘Salem’s Lot, saying that his original plan was for the vampires to win), and sometimes they don’t make it. “I love a happy ending as much as anyone,” he said; “it’s just not always possible.”

I was aware of his general approach from his writing already: in addition to his memoir/handbook On Writing, King has often included writing and storytelling (and discussions of same) in his fiction, to the point that stories about writers are a significant subset of King’s work. As I wrote last summer, Misery, in addition to being a gripping story of suspense, is also something of a master class in writing as King surrogate Paul Sheldon thinks his way through the book that will preserve his life as a captive of his “biggest fan,” Annie Wilkes. Much of the imagery King uses to describe his process, such as seeing the story through a hole or window, is present in Misery and was still part of King’s discussion on Friday.

I suspect this is one reason King continues to fascinate long after his ideas are not only no longer shocking, but even familiar: his willingness to allow readers into his thought process, to show his tricks, to let them come along as if he needed their help in telling the story, is endearing. It’s also as much of a pose as that of the author who reveals nothing (such as John Irving, whom King said told him that he doesn’t begin a book until he knows what the last sentence will be, to which King responded, “Jeez Louise”), and I’m not naive enough to believe that King has completely laid it all on the table for his audience. Still, the sense that King’s personality comes through his writing is palpable, and longtime fans accept him as they accept old friends or family members, foibles and all.

One of the more interesting moments came during the Q&A: an audience member asked if King still slept with the light on, as he once claimed in an interview. King appeared to search for a memory of having said that, gave up, and finally said, “I’m a big boy now.” The audience laughed, and King segued into a bit that he had likely delivered before and clearly relished, drawing the audience into one of his stories: he pointed out that of all the people at the Metroplex, some of us had probably forgotten to lock our cars, and “anybody could climb into the back seat. And when you’re driving home and you look in the rear-view mirror”–he mimed a figure rising from the back seat–“‘objects may be closer than they appear.’ . . . But that probably won’t happen.” He continued, “And when you get home, and your house is all dark, you’ll go into the bathroom and see the shower curtain closed, and you’ll tell yourself, ‘I left it like that.’ . . . There probably won’t be anybody there.” We all laughed, and King laughed, too. “We’re all laughing,” he said, “but these things have a time release. Because some time tonight, you’re going to be alone, and it’s going to be dark, and then it won’t seem so funny.”

October is the Coolest Month

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Or is it the cruelest? There’s always too much to do and too many events to take advantage of them all during October, between post-season baseball, family Halloween activities, school and work, rehearsals and performances. (I should also mention that The Lost Worlds of Power, which was supposed to be released on Halloween, has been delayed, for reasons best explained here. No worries; I’ll update as I get information.) This year my wife dressed as the Queen from Snow White, and we thought of a costume for me that (I think) came together really well:

"Mirror, Mirror, on the wall . . ."

“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall . . .”

Then there are the movies: a lot of people plan to watch 31 horror movies during October, a movie a day; I knew I would have a hard time reaching that number (and as the month went on I remembered why I had never done it before), but this year I made an effort to catch up on some I had never seen (while revisiting a few favorites). I made it to 21 and still felt like I was cramming them in; as enjoyable as it was, I doubt I’ll try to keep up this pace year-round.

I didn’t plan ahead, for the most part, and for those I saw on the big screen the programmers of the October at the Oldtown horror series made the decisions for me. For my own choices, I defined “horror” pretty broadly, and included some examples of fantasy and thriller, depending on my mood. (Pulp Fiction, which I rewatched in order to write an article on its twentieth anniversary, is the real outlier.)

Barbara Kellerman in The Monster Club

Barbara Kellerman in The Monster Club

The movies I covered are listed below with their year of release and director, as well as a key pointing out a few repeated elements. For example, five of the movies I watched in October were adaptations of stories by H. P. Lovecraft (I wrote about two of them at The Solute, and intend to write about the remaining three in the near future), and considering I didn’t watch any martial arts movies there were a surprising number of samurai sword attacks.

1. The Call of Cthulhu (2005, Andrew Leman)* a, g, hpl, w
2. ParaNorman (2012, Chris Butler and Sam Fell) b, c, v
3. Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988, James Signorelli) b, m
4. 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964, George Pal)
5. Tentacles (1977, Ovidio G. Assonitis as “Oliver Hellman”) v (diving masks–I guess that counts)
6. The Whisperer in Darkness (2011, Sean Branney) a, g, hpl, v
7. Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)* ss, v
8. Basket Case (1982, Frank Henenlotter)** c, t
9. The Gate (1987, Tibor Takács)* g
10. The Hole (2009, Joe Dante) c, g
11. Grand Piano (2013, Eugenio Mira) m
12. The Monster Club (1981, Roy Ward Baker) c, m, v
13. The Gates of Hell aka City of the Living Dead (1980, Lucio Fulci)** d, g
14. Demons (1985, Lamberto Bava)** ss, v
15. The Haunted Palace (1963, Roger Corman) a, b, hpl, p
16. Die, Monster, Die! aka Monster of Terror (1965, Daniel Haller) a, hpl, w
17. The Visitor aka Stridulum (1979, Giulio Paradisi as “Michael J. Paradise”)* c, p, w
18. The Dunwich Horror (1970, Daniel Haller) d, g, hpl, t
19. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper)** v, w
20. Eraserhead (1977, David Lynch) c, g(?), m
21. Donovan’s Brain (1953, Felix Feist) p

* rewatch
** seen in theater

a: Arkham setting
b: character burned at the stake (or threatened with burning)
c: monstrous or supernatural child
d: Dunwich setting
g: gateway or portal to otherworldly realm opened
hpl: H. P. Lovecraft adaptation
m: musical number
p: possession or domination by a disembodied intelligence
ss: samurai sword attack
t: twins
v: masks
w: character in wheelchair

Did I miss anything? And did you watch anything in the last month that you would recommend or that made an impression on you?

Scarefest: The Visitor

“Maybe this just isn’t the right time to bring children into this bad, mixed-up world. Some of them are confused: they think that the forces of evil are stronger than the forces of good.” –Jane Phillips (Shelley Winters), in The Visitor

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This article was written as a contribution to Scarefest, a series of pieces by commenters on film website The Dissolve, organized by commenter Miller. The week before it ran, I alerted Miller that I was changing my Scarefest entry to The Visitor, and another commenter asked, “Are you writing about how scary it is that it’s so bugnuts insane?” I assume he was kidding, but my short answer is yes. Yes, I am.

The 1979 film The Visitor, directed by Giulio Paradisi (as “Michael J. Paradise”), has long had a reputation as a hard-to-find cult oddity; after a restoration and rerelease by Drafthouse Films in 2013, it became more widely available on disc and VOD. TCM ran the restored version as part of its “TCM Underground” series last summer, and that’s where I saw it. I didn’t know a lot about it, other than having seen the bizarre trailer Drafthouse put together for it, and knowing that the film was considered extremely weird even among cult horror aficionados. I was prepared to have my mind blown, but I wasn’t prepared for The Visitor to actually be, you know, scary.

The plot isn’t easy to summarize except in broad outlines: businessman Raymond Armstead (Lance Henriksen) has made a deal with a shadowy organization dedicated to perpetuating the bloodline of an evil alien being referred to as Sateen. His girlfriend Barbara (Joanne Nail) has one child, Katy (Paige Conner), now eight, but Barbara is afraid of Katy and reluctant to have another child. Because of this, the organization pressures Raymond behind the scenes—their plans for world domination require that Katy have a brother—and Katy, in whom Sateen’s influence is already strong, alternately wheedles and punishes her mother for her obstinance. In the mean time, Jerzy (John Huston), the “visitor” of the English title, stalks Katy on behalf of Franco Nero’s character, a Christ-like figure who lives somewhere (in outer space? or is it Heaven?) with a congregation of bald children and who is opposed to Sateen. Is the visitor’s mission to kill Katy or save her? A lot of other stuff happens in the margins, but that’s basically it: a blend of New Age contactee mysticism and 1970s devil-child horror. So far, so good.

I: The Sleep of Reason

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So why did this movie, much of which is absurd on its surface, freak me out? For one thing, the film’s late-‘70s style took me back to my childhood, and not in a good way. I’m just over 40, so my memory of the 1970s is filtered through the subjective haze of being a young child then. The ‘70s were pretty strange to begin with, and even more so when you have no reference for much of the adult world. Much of what was considered “grown-up” moviemaking (and a lot that was aimed at kids) back then was characterized by, to use President Carter’s infamous term, the “malaise” of the time, and for me that resulted in a lot of free-floating unease, even when watching things that were ostensibly light. You just never knew when things were going to take a dark turn. The gauzy, soft-focus cinematography, cheesy cop show music, and swinging suburban styles of The Visitor were all intimately familiar to me, to the point that I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t seen this movie as a kid (I’m still not sure).

My reaction is a subjective one, but is there anything more subjective than fear? Like laughter or arousal, the fear reaction is fundamentally irrational; it can be controlled on the viewer’s part, and there are techniques filmmakers can use to evoke it, but at a base level it touches something that cannot be reasoned with. In my case, that reaction has always been close to the surface: I could hardly watch scary movies or TV shows as a kid, even tame fare like The Twilight Zone, because being afraid or tense wasn’t a pleasant sensation for me like it is for many kids. I was drawn to fantasy, but even something that wasn’t scary at first could come to haunt me, taking on a life of its own as I lay in bed, waiting for sleep, which in many phases of my childhood had its own terrors in the form of realistic nightmares. The Visitor falls flat as a vehicle for ideas or even as a story: too many things happen without explanation, there are abrupt tonal shifts and weird distortions of sound and image, and it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. But is that not an accurate description of a dream?

In dreams, anything can happen, and ordinary events and objects can be invested with emotional power greater than they have while awake. The very first scene, a (possibly allegorical) confrontation between Katy and Jerzy in a gold-lit field, is overtly surreal, and typical of the over-the-top visual flourishes in the movie’s more fantastic sections. As Katy approaches, thick snowflakes swirl around and stick to her face; eventually, only her eyes are visible. It’s spooky, like something from Altered States or Ridley Scott’s Legend (Scott also came to mind later in the film when the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta are seen through a smoky haze, like the future Los Angeles of Blade Runner).

But the first scene that really threw me is relatively mundane: at her birthday party, Katy eagerly opens a box which was supposed to contain a mechanical bird purchased by her aunt in an earlier scene. Through Sateen’s power (or something), the box contains a gun, which Katy excitedly waves around and then tosses onto the couch, where it goes off and hits Barbara in the back. Katy shrugs, like, “oops?” Barbara spends the rest of the movie in a wheelchair, paralyzed by a bullet to the spine. It’s a crazy scene, but part of its nightmare power is how casually it occurs, and the mismatch of typical “suspense” build-up with gleefully committed violence that literally comes out of nowhere.

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Later, after Barbara has recovered and started getting back to a normal life, she is stranded with Katy while driving at night. A semi truck, of which we can only see the lights, pulls up on the side of the road in front of their car. Barbara is worried, and Katy openly mocks her fear. Barbara is right to be afraid: the truck is a mobile operating room, and after she is rendered unconscious agents of the conspiracy artificially inseminate her to speed up their plan. The imagery is straight out of an alien abduction report: stranded motorists, lost time, the dim memory of an operation (I suspect that it is this sequence, and a few scenes of glowing lights in the sky, that led to criticism of The Visitor as a knock-off of Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and a surprise pregnancy.

Upon discovering her condition, Barbara goes to her ex-husband (played by Sam Peckinpah!) and pleads with him to help her get an abortion. When she returns home from that operation (still in her wheelchair), Katy savagely attacks her. No pretenses now! And again, the sudden eruption of violence, while motivated by character and plot, is surprising in its intensity. Even Damien usually cloaked his actions in the plausible deniability of a “freak accident.”

II. The Sound of Nightmare

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The Visitor’s Italian title, Stridulum, is appropriate: Latin for “whizzing or hissing,” and surviving in English in the word “stridulation,” for the buzzing sound insects make by scraping their legs together, it’s a clue to how important sound is in The Visitor. Both Sateen and his enemy (a spaceship-flying “Commander Yahweh”—shades of Chariots of the Gods!), have birds as an important part of their back story; Katy keeps a hawk called Squeaky who obviously represents her diabolical heritage and with whom she communicates, and the visitor summons a flock of birds during the climax of the film to scourge Katy of Sateen’s influence (I think). I suspect that birds are so important to The Visitor because they’re a convenient artsy symbol for the soul, and also because, post-Hitchcock, birds are creepy. Either way, the soundtrack is full of echoing, distorted screeches and bird calls (in addition to analog synthesizer sounds—another skin-crawling part of my childhood—and the aforementioned funky cop show music). Whenever Katy is about to use her psychic powers (as at the birthday party), we hear the eagle cry, or see a glimpse of Squeaky, or both.

Then there’s the mechanical bird that was supposed to be in the box: it’s a gold and blue knick-knack that says “I’m a pretty bird” in a synthesized drone, followed by a whine of feedback, on a constant loop. Even in the first scene, when Katy’s aunt buys it, I’m not sure how anyone could hear that and think of the bird as anything other than a prop in a horror movie. Later, when a detective (Glenn Ford!) is trying to figure out where the gun at the party came from, he finds the bird and takes it with him in his car. It’s still talking as he drives his car down the freeway with it on the passenger seat. “I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo * I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo * I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo,” et cetera, until Squeaky attacks the detective and he drives the car off the road, where it bursts into flame before he can escape. Squeaky strikes again!

Sound also plays a role in the scariest scene in the film, the scene that I actually had to turn off for a few minutes to get myself together before I could finish watching it: early in the film, Katy is shown playing Pong on a big-screen TV, hidden by the chair in which she is sitting. The electronic blip of the game is the counterpoint to the conversation she has with her mother. Much later in the film, after Katy has been institutionalized for her violent behavior, Barbara returns home to her empty house and hears: blip . . . blip . . . blip. The game is turned on, Katy is in her chair. After Katy’s brutal attacks, just her presence in the house again is scary, but the whole sequence following is . . . well, it scared the hell out of me, but it is also much stranger than anything I’ve described yet, so I won’t spoil it.

III. All in the Family

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Paige Conner doesn’t look like she’s eight years old in this movie: maybe ten. It could be that she’s big for her age or I could just chalk it up to the precocity of child actors. In any case, her Katy Collins is a miniature tyrant, controlling and profane. Her poor mother is constantly put-upon, and her would-be stepfather mostly stays out of her way. Even when Katy’s words are pleading, her tone is commanding or threatening. Only Jerzy and a suspicious housekeeper (Shelley Winters) really see her for what she is, but take opposite approaches to dealing with her.

By coincidence, I had an older sister who would have been about Katy’s age in 1979, and while she wasn’t the holy terror that Katy is in the movie, I’m sure it affected my reception of this movie. The trappings of a late ‘70s girlhood cheek-by-jowl with the freaky events of the movie was unsettlingly close to my childhood nightmares and brought to the surface more anxiety than I realized I still carried with me.

Domestic abuse was an issue that got a lot of attention in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, as if the lid had finally come off a closely-held secret and now everyone was free to sort it out in public. I’m fortunate that I didn’t grow up with firsthand experience of family violence, but it was something I became aware of thanks to the new openness about it. Nowadays, when I hear about Mommie Dearest at all, it’s as a camp classic: “No more wire hangers, ever!” et cetera. It wasn’t funny to me as a kid, however: Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford terrified me. I might have chosen that movie for Scarefest, except I haven’t gone back to watch it since then.

The Visitor pushes some of the same buttons for me. I’m not kept up at night by its cosmic battle of good and evil, or the slow-motion mayhem, or even the bird attacks: those are par for the course with science fiction and horror movies. I enjoy that stuff. What really shocked and disturbed me was the sudden eruption of violence in otherwise very mundane settings, worst of all between family members. For such an unreal movie, it feels an awful lot like someone’s issues being laid bare.

Now that I’m an adult, I see my childhood anxieties from the other side: my daughter is eight years old. I love her. She’s a good kid. But even in the best of relationships there are moments: children can be shockingly amoral and single-minded about getting what they want. As a parent, it’s natural to wonder about and be frustrated by those moments, and fearful not of our children but for them. I’m also not proud to admit that there are moments I feel like Shelley Winters’ Jane, just wanting to slap some respect into the “bad” kids. Is that what this genre of horror boils down to? Is that the root of The Bad Seed and The Good Son and “It’s a Good Life” and The Omen and all the rest? Is it simply the recognition that children can be brats, taken to the nth degree?

Possibly. But I think it’s more general than that: even the people closest to us have sides to them that are unknown to us. They share our lives and homes, but their thoughts are no more visible to us than those of strangers halfway around the world. The Visitor taps into the fear that we don’t really know the people around us: the “Visitor” could be a stranger, or someone we’ve known our whole lives.

Afterlife with Archie: “Escape from Riverdale”

“Sometimes dead is better,” witches Hilda and Zelda Spellman tell Jughead Jones after their magic is unable to save his dog Hot Dog from a fatal injury.  If only he had listened!  Struck by his obvious pain, their niece Sabrina (i.e., the Teenage Witch) uses forbidden magic from the Necronomicon to bring Hot Dog back to life.  Like the resurrections in “The Monkey’s Paw” and Pet Sematary, it doesn’t work out as planned: Hot Dog returns, but as a horrible undead monster with a bite that spreads a terrible infection.  Soon, the town of Riverdale (home of Archie, Betty, Veronica, and the rest) is at the center of a zombie epidemic straight out of Night of the Living Dead.

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Since last fall, the first comic I read when I get it home from the store has been Afterlife with Archie, an unlikely hit from writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla.  The bimonthly book recently finished its first five-issue arc, “Escape from Riverdale,” and with the promise of big changes starting in the next issue, this seemed as good a time as any to examine the series (and encourage anyone who hasn’t tried it to give it a look: the first arc was just released in a collection last week).

As its name implies, Afterlife with Archie is a spin-off of Archie and the series with which it shares a universe (including Sabrina, Josie and the Pussycats, and more), with the familiar kid-friendly characters run through a George Romero- and Stephen King-style wringer.  As I wrote in my series on doppelgangers and copycat characters, writers often use thinly-veiled pastiches of familiar characters when they want to explore their darker sides; however, it is increasingly common for publishers to give writers free rein with out-of-continuity or alternate-universe stories starring their name-brand characters (Marvel has had a Marvel Zombies series for several years now, as an obvious example).

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At least since the late 1980s, following the success of the dark, adult-themed comics work of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, it’s been known that “grim and gritty” sell.  Fashions change, but it seems like every few years there’s another round of “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” stories and another slew of comic anti-heroes committing rape, murder, or whatever transgression it takes to get the spotlight in a competitive field.  (I don’t have a problem with comics tackling adult themes, of course, but it’s often the titles that loudly insist on their “adult” status that seem the most adolescent.)  Even without resorting to graphic sex or violence, “going dark” is a giant cliché, and obviously zombies have been trendy for years now, so it would be easy to dismiss Afterlife with Archie as just another fad book.  Yet it’s become one of my favorites: what gives?

Why does Afterlife with Archie succeed where others fail?  For one thing, the affection the creators have for both the horror genre and Archie Comics is obvious and infectious.  Aguirre-Sacasa knows the characters of the Archie universe and respects them; the darkness isn’t something laid on top of the characters, it’s an artful drawing out of themes already present in their usual, more cartoonish depiction.  Archie Andrews is still good-hearted and willing to go out on a limb for his friends and family; Reggie Mantle is still a selfish snob; Betty and Veronica still fight over Archie while trying to remain “BFFs.”  Francavilla’s semi-realistic art, filled with expressionistic shadows and dramatic, off-kilter angles, is matched by dialogue that is by turns naturalistic—the teens don’t sound like overly-cool caricatures of high-schoolers—and appropriately heightened for the gothic excess of the book.  (Veronica’s father Hiram Lodge probably wouldn’t call Archie an “insolent whelp” in one of his regular appearances, but the dynamic of overbearing patriarch to a young, unwanted suitor isn’t a stretch.)

Even the more ghoulish elements are incorporated in ways that play with well-known character traits: it might seem like a cheap joke that the voracious Jughead is the first infected and becomes a flesh-devouring zombie, but it’s just as equally the kind of twist associated with the EC Comics that are another point of reference.  His first teen victim: “Big” Ethel Muggs, a character who has always made me cringe in the original comics with her slow-witted “hick” speech pattern and unrequited crush on Jughead.  (Ironically, as horrible as her death is in Afterlife, her brief appearance has more dignity than the regular version of the character has ever had.)

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Flashbacks fill in the characters’ history, making them three-dimensional: in issue no. 4, the most emotional of the five, Archie is saved from the undead Hot Dog by his own dog Vegas, and then is confronted by his own father, now an infected zombie.  In both cases, the memories of happier times are intercut with the current struggle. (It’s the rare horror comic for which you’ll need a tissue!) Memory also weighs heavily on Hiram Lodge and his butler Smithers; it’s implied that Hiram was unfaithful to Veronica’s mother, and Smithers, as a second-generation servant of the Lodge family, is a discreet repository of all the town’s secrets.  Along with the incestuous relationship of Jason and Cheryl Blossom and the down-low lesbianism of Ginger Lopez and Nancy Woods (both interpretations that are original to this series, obviously), the constant web of secrets and lies make Afterlife’s version of Riverdale resemble Peyton Place, even before the supernatural elements are introduced.  The tone is very much like a contemporary teen soap opera.

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The “Escape from Riverdale” arc ends with Archie leading the town’s survivors from the dwindling safety of Lodge Manor out of town.  Sabrina, who was banished to another dimension for her actions in the first issue, is scheduled to return to Riverdale in issue 6, presumably introducing a more cosmic angle to the ongoing horror, but who knows what other characters will show up?  Josie and the Pussycats are still out there, somewhere, so far unused, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla indulge in some deep cuts from the world of Archie: most of the weirdest Archie concepts are technically alternate universes, but so is Afterlife, and it’s clear the creative team know their stuff, so who knows? I’m hoping for Jughead’s Time Police, myself.

Or maybe they’ll take some inspiration from Spire Christian Comics (which licensed Archie characters to spread the Good News), and we’ll get the gritty reboot of The Gospel Blimp the world has been crying out for.  Or a grown-up Hansi, the Girl Who Loved the Swastika?  After the real-life horrors of that story, zombies should be no problem.

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All kidding aside, I do give Archie Comics a lot of credit for remaining a comics company first instead of a “media” company: although many of the attention-grabbing developments of recent years, such as Archie’s marriage and impending death in Life with Archie (the series which Afterlife with Archie sprang from, initially as a joke) and the introduction of openly gay character Kevin Keller, could be seen as publicity stunts, they’ve remained dedicated to a medium that the Big Two comics companies have increasingly turned into ancillaries of big budget movies and little else.  On the other hand: an Afterlife with Archie movie?  I can think of less likely properties to adapt for film.  In the mean time, I look forward to seeing what else Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla come up with.  (And I just found out that Sabrina will be appearing in another, “much darker” ongoing series following the success of Afterlife; “much darker” than what we’ve seen so far? Wow.)