Hellbound: Hellraiser II / ** ½

mv5bmzixzja2mzatztu5ms00n2fjlwi2ndqtngmwyzqxmge1ndlmxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi-_v1_sy1000_cr006471000_al_Man, do I wish this movie was 2/3 as long as it is.

Let me back up for a moment. I’m a big fan of the original Hellraiser, both as a low-budget, unsettling horror film and as an adaptation of Clive Barker’s work. I think that there are few authors out there like Barker, but movies have always struggled to match his surreal imagination, boundary-pushing horror, and blurring of lines between morality and pleasure. Barker was never an author interested in conventional horror stories, and any effort to turn his work into something more easily pigeonholed usually ended up disastrously.

All of which is to say, I wasn’t really expecting Hellbound to be any good. It’s not as though Hellraiser really needed a sequel, and knowing how the later films essentially turned Pinhead and the Cenobites into generic slasher villain tropes – thus missing every appeal of the original film and novella – I assumed Hellbound was just the first step down a long path of mediocrity.

Which is probably why I got so frustrated by the film’s final act, because up until then, Hellbound is way more interesting than you’d expect it to be. Yes, it still feels like an unnecessary sequel – it picks up right after the events of the original, and follows Kirsty’s fears that her stepmother Julia can be resurrected the same way Frank was in the original – and can sometimes feel a bit like a retread, with characters sometimes just going through the motions to keep the original plot cycling through again. And yes, there’s undeniably a sense of “missing the point”, with the filmmakers clearly not interested in Barker’s blending of pain and pleasure and instead going full on torture and gore.

And yet, Hellbound manages to capture the unsettling, otherworldly, Lovecraftian feeling that Barker sometimes managed. The glimpses of the other world that we get here are genuinely unsettling and strange; Pinhead and the Cenobites are still forces of malevolent nature, incomprehensible to human understanding; the horror is still visceral and truly horrifying. (I try not to be an old man about movies too often, but there’s little denying that Hellbound‘s effects largely work because of their practicality. The latex body suits are tactile and horrific in that texture, giving it all a physicality that computer effects never could. And the same can be said for the matte paintings, which are moodier and stranger than CGI could often create. I’m not saying all CGI is bad – far from it – but the first two Hellraiser films are testaments to the power of practical horror effects.)

All of which makes it all the more frustrating when Hellbound goes so far off the rails that the word “off” doesn’t even do it justice. Up until the scene in which of the film’s antagonists meets what seems to be his final fate in a hellish box, I was into it. But within seconds after that, character motivations veer wildly, physical behaviors make no sense, power struggles become unclear, and the film loses any sense of coherence, clarity, or any purpose beyond gore and violence. It makes for an exhaustingly awful, pointless, and truly incomprehensible final act, and it’s so bad that it takes away from how surprisingly solid, if unoriginal, I found the rest of the movie. If you love the original Hellraiser, you might be surprised by how good Hellbound is for a while; just trust me when I tell you that it’s time to turn the movie off after the aforementioned scene – that is, unless you want to be able to pinpoint the exact, precise moment a film implodes.

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Only You Can Save Mankind, by Terry Pratchett / ****

9f2e49_f831ea71d494476e89a45cfcc5ee521amv2Anyone who’s read through my book reviews knows of my deep and abiding love for Terry Pratchett, a man who I genuinely feel was one of the great authors of the 20th century. Mixing comedy and social commentary, deep meditations on humanity and wild silliness, Pratchett was something special – a man who could mix seemingly light plotting with devastating insight, and whose brisk, rich writing style could sneak up on you when you least expected it. And though I’ve read almost all of Sir Pratchett’s bibliography, I hadn’t been able to check out the Johnny Maxwell trilogy until recently.

Only You Can Save Mankind, the first volume in that trilogy, automatically sets itself apart from almost all Pratchett by being set entirely in the modern world. There are fantastic elements, yes, but there’s no magic, no nomes wandering beneath the feet of men. No, instead, there’s Johnny, very much the kind of kid we all knew in high school – not quite an outcast, but certainly not popular; the kind of kid who just wanted to be unnoticed and ignored, mostly. And in the glimpses we get of Johnny’s homelife, that’s understandable; the “Trying Times” we see make Johnny’s home feel acutely familiar to any child of divorce who remembers how bad things could be at times. More than that, Pratchett gives us glimpses of poverty, of racial concerns, and of class strata more carefully – and, in some ways, more explicitly, given the lack of fantastical metaphors – than he’s ever done before, filtering it all through a child who’s too young to understand all of it yet, but is being forced to anyway.

If that all sounds a bit darker than the usual Pratchett fare, well, it is. That’s not to say that some of Pratchett’s usual clever wordplay and light language doesn’t make its way in there, nor some clever dialogue. But in many ways, Only You Can Save Mankind feels like a very different book, one that’s more cynical and more uncertain as to where we’re going as a species. It’s a book set against the backdrop of Desert Storm, where the war has been turned into TV highlights and students complain that the war gets boring to watch unless there’s good action. That background helps to shine a light on the intent behind the main plot, in which Johnny finds himself drawn into a Galaga/Space Invaders-style video game to help the aliens survive, because they can handle no more slaughtering at the hands of humans who find war to only be an entertaining game.

That idea automatically gives Mankind some weight and heft that you might not expect, with children dealing with the concept of death and warfare, and trying to understand how being distanced from the consequences can change your perspective. And this is not Pratchett scolding video games; rather, this is undeniably (and sometimes too overtly) a book about media and war, and one clearly inspired by the war that’s playing out in the background of the novel. Luckily, in Pratchett’s capable hands, the book still plays out as a fun adventure novel, but there’s little denying that the undercurrents here are dark and thoughtful. Is it still a great book? In many ways, yes, but it’s definitely missing some of the effortless grace and careful construction (to say nothing of the more subtle use of themes) of Pratchett’s best novels. Then again, it’s still a Terry Pratchett book, and you know that means it’s almost definitely worth reading no matter what; it’s just not among the top tier of his works.

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Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen King and Owen King / ****

34466922One of the fun things about reading books that are co-authored is the chance to see how well (or not) author’s sensibilities blend together. Look, for instance, at how Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett each brought their unique sensibilities to Good Omens, creating something that felt truly like a fusion of their voices. And it’s not as though Stephen King is a stranger to co-authoring; even setting aside his short works with his other son, Joe Hill, there’s the double punch of The Talisman and Black House, wherein King marries his voice to that of another horror legend, Peter Straub.

Now, I haven’t read any of Owen King’s solo work, so I don’t know how well Sleeping Beauties represents a true fusion of their voices. But there’s undeniably a lot of Stephen King here, most notably in the rich pacing, which is something that I think Stephen King does better than almost any author I can think of. Like almost no other author, King has a way of starting sprawling and calmly, and slowly tightening the noose until the climax is all but inevitable and stopping reading is a fool’s errand. And that’s definitely the case with Sleeping Beauties, which starts simply enough – one day, women around the world are simply not waking up, but instead, seem to have become wrapped in silken facial cocoons as they sleep; what’s more, you do not want to remove the silk, trust me – but builds and builds to catastrophic levels, with a double-barrelled climax that takes place on two different planes of existence and absolutely flies, for dozens of pages.

More than that, Sleeping Beauties is rich with interesting themes, using its gender-affecting story to explore gender dynamics and relations between the sexes. Even the locations are rich with subtext, from a women’s prison full of no shortage of victimized women to small town politics, from female police officers to attractive reporters being judged by their surface, the Kings manage to take on the issues seriously and thoughtfully, rendering the women characters every bit as sympathetically as the men, even considering the fact that they’re two white dudes. (One can’t help but wonder if the book would change at all with a female co-writer – say, King’s wife?) And as the Kings interweave their massive cast of characters, their story manages to be about male rage and female empowerment, about the clash between “traditional” values and more modern ones, all while telling a gripping apocalyptic tale about a world in which all that’s left are a bunch of dudes – and anyone who’s read Lord of the Flies knows how this could go, pretty easily.

For all of that, there’s something off about Sleeping Beauties, some indescribable X-factor that kept me from being as gripped with the book as I wish I was. There’s a lot I liked here, but it also drug more than most King books I know, and you can’t help but wonder if Owen King’s voice simply isn’t as propulsive as his father’s, or as gripping. It doesn’t help that Sleeping Beauties‘s cast is so sprawling (opening with a list of characters that goes on multiple pages and feels a bit overwhelming), and ultimately, feels like a few threads could have been trimmed. (I’m thinking especially here of a late-book thread about two drug-dealing brothers who escape from prison thanks to the lack of focus on the penal system in the wake of this disease.) It’s a book I still enjoyed, and whose richness I appreciated, but I never really come to love it the way I hoped I would.

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Near Dark / The Brides of Dracula

b63e645c8ea65d9562fd5352bc208716It’s been a few years since I first saw Near Dark, director Kathryn Bigelow’s take on the vampire genre, and I’ll concede that it’s got a few more flaws than I remembered. The first act, in which an aw-shucks cowboy sort named Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) falls in love (well, lust, probably, if we’re being technical) with a mysterious girl he sees one night is fine, but it undeniably drags a little bit, especially if you know where it’s all going. Their patter is a bit off, their connection a little tenuous, but it works, as a setup to what you might assume will be your typical vampire romance story (at which point I will remind you of this hilariously misleading cover for Near Dark that always makes me laugh when I picture the faces of those who watched it based only off of their assumptions).

But not long after Caleb gets bitten, he finds himself captured by the girl’s “family” – a crew of violent sociopaths, whose need for blood finds its outlet in brutal crimes. And they expect Caleb to join in, which leads to one of the most intense and harrowing sequences I’ve ever seen in a vampire film, in which the clan locks the door on a roadhouse and sets their inner beasts loose. (It’s a scene that’s always reminded me of The Devil’s Rejects, in many ways, and I’d be surprised if Zombie didn’t use the roadhouse scene as inspiration for some of his films.) And that’s before an incredibly tense hotel shootout where the beams of sunlight through the punctured wall are just as dangerous – if not more so – than the bullets.

Near Dark is a nasty, violent, and wonderfully smart genre film, one that serves as a welcome counterpoint to 1987’s other big vampire film, The Lost Boys. Where that film so much steered into the “attitude” of the vampires, but turned them into sulking wannabe goths, Near Dark makes no excuses or apologies for its creatures, turning them into living avatars of death and violence. They have opted out from society, and their abilities allow them to live the lives they want to live. And while The Lost Boys housed its appeal in the idea of “hanging with the cool kids,” Near Dark offers Caleb the chance to drop out of society and live like a god – unapologetically.

Yes, Near Dark drags a little at times; yes, the final act feels a little tacked on and odd, and the “happy” aspects of the ending feel a little forced in. And yes, Bill Paxton has it cranked way past 11 here, chewing on the scenery so much that it’s a wonder there’s any left. (Luckily, his enthusiasm and sense of fun is pretty infectious, if I’m being honest.) But that second act is near perfect, and the way the film handles its vampiric lore (never mentioning the word “vampire,” never addressing weaknesses or abilities directly, and just letting everything be inferred and implied) is smart and satisfying, treating its audience with respect and assuming they’ll be able to keep up. And that one-two punch of the roadhouse and hotel is so good that the wait through that courtship is more than redeemed, delivering a genre film that pulls no punches and handles its story with stylistic flair, a nasty glint in the eye, and more intelligence than you’d assume. Rating: ****


brides-of-dracula-movie-poster-1960-1020144019I’ve only just started to dip my toes into the long list of Hammer horror films – the output of horror staples from the legendary British studio known for its Gothic sensibilities, atmosphere, and craftsmanship, as well as a bit of camp. Back in 2015, I did a triple feature of Hammer Dracula films, and walked away thoroughly enjoying it all, and starting to see the appeal. But among the ones I missed during that session was The Brides of Dracula, Hammer’s first sequel to the original Dracula. So when I got the chance to see a Hammer film on the big screen, how could I pass that up?

The Brides of Dracula is about what you’d expect from a Hammer film, even sight unseen, if I told you the basic setup. A beautiful young teacher is riding on a carriage through the wilds of Transylvania; she stops in a town where everyone gets nervous at the arrival of the town matriarch, who lives in a castle up the hill; the teacher goes up to the castle, despite the best efforts of the town people…you can imagine where this goes from there, right? Of course you can.

But none of that conveys a number of things about Brides, least of which how fun it all is. Filmed in lush color, with detailed and gloriously gothic castles as our backdrops, director Terence Fisher pitches everything just so, making some of it wryly funny while playing nicely with atmosphere at every chance. (There’s a great bit involving a girl looking into the mirror and seeing nothing behind her that shouldn’t work, but does; even though you know what’s going on, it’s still so well-staged and crafted that you don’t mind a bit.) And, of course, there’s Peter Cushing as traveling vampire hunter Van Helsing, bringing his box of science and vampire lore to bear against the apparently not-dead Dracula (though, sadly, not played by Christopher Lee this time).

The result is a wonderful piece of 60’s horror, one that does everything you’d hope from the genre – great visuals, a nice sense of style, more atmosphere than you’d hope for, and a clever enough script that actually moves along at a great pace. There are even some genuine surprises along the way (the final method to defeat Dracula is, like my friend pointed out, essentially what would happen in a ludicrous adventure video game, but that didn’t keep me from laughing in pleasure as I saw what the film was going for). And the chance to see a Hammer film on the big screen is almost always worth taking. Rating: ****

IMDb: Near Dark | The Brides of Dracula

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders / *****

512les0yullBefore I write this review, I want to tell you about something I hate, and something I love. (Don’t worry. This is relevant, I promise.)

  • One Thing I Hate: When I was a kid, I hated going to the bookstore and seeing one big section labeled “Science-Fiction and Fantasy.” These were wildly different genres to me (an admitted nerd), and I found it baffling that we shoved them together, considering they had little, if anything, in common, apart from perhaps the perceived audience.
  • One Thing I Love: The more I read, the more I love books that refuse to abide by genre boundaries, and the more in awe of them I am. Writing in a single genre is hard enough, but mixing your genres can be doubly hard, to say nothing of the risk you take in alienating an audience that doesn’t want unexpected shifts. But for me, there’s something exhilarating about books that defy expectations and easy categorization, because to me, that’s what life does.

So, what does all these have to do with All the Birds in the Sky, the debut novel from Charlie Jane Anders? Well, Anders’ novel does that thing I love, and more than that, it would be one of the only books I know that easily would fit in that strange hybrid genre bookstores created, because it’s that rare book that mixes science-fiction and fantasy elements seamlessly, interweaving the two and playing them against each other in rich and satisfying ways. And if that’s not enough for you, it’s a coming of age story, a quiet romance, a YA novel, a dystopian/post-apocalyptic tale, and more, all while completely working in a way you wouldn’t expect from something that ambitious.

So what is this book about? It’s best to go in relatively cold, so I won’t go too much into detail, beyond telling you that the book’s early pages focus on the friendship between Laurence and Patricia, two kids who’d be comfortably labeled as “outcasts” by most of their peers. Both come from dysfunctional homes; both are more talented than they’d first appear; both enjoy the company of the other, who seem to accept them for who they are. But what we know, and Laurence and Patricia don’t come to understand immediately, is that they come from two different worlds. Because while it’s evident from the early going that Laurence is a techno-geek, one who makes two-second time machines and artificial intelligences, Patricia’s talents seem to be more fantastic and supernatural – indeed, they seem to be drawn from the world of witchcraft.

That conflict – between science and magic – makes for fertile ground, and All the Birds in the Sky embraces it, letting that schism and divide drive the novel as it develops in wild an unexpected directions. And every time you think you have a handle on it, it slides away from you and evolves. Oh, you think it’s a YA tale about two friends coming to terms with their destiny? No, that’s only the early going. Oh, it’s something in the vein of The Magicians, with the underground world of magic and how we connect to the real world and ourselves? Nope, it’s not that either, nor is it an easy tale about how science can save the world from our worst impulses. Indeed, one of the great joys of All the Birds is seeing how the book constantly defies expectations, evolving and shifting while remaining true to its characters and its themes, all throughout.

Enough can’t be said about Anders’ craft, which doesn’t just create a lushly imagined and crafted world, but populates it with memorable characters down to the smallest supporting role. More than that, there’s her wonderful command of tone, which can slide from comic hilarity (a casual reveal and apparent side story in the early going about a man at the mall is laugh out loud funny and absurd) to heartbreaking, from wondrous to nightmarish – but every one has the same command of craft and ability. And more than that, there’s the amazing story, which spans years and half the planet, and touches on man’s responsibility to the planet, science ethics, redemption, and more, all while never losing sight of these two characters and their bond. It’s rich, imaginative, wild, and more than anything else, it’s incredibly humane and beautiful in ways that just made me smile. And that, I think, is the best thing about it – the top of a very long list of great things. (Well, that and the fact that this is Anders’ first novel, which hopefully presages a long career to come.)

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Hellraisers, by Robert Sellers and JAKe / ****

Screenshot 2018-02-20 08.20.27It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who follows this blog that I consider myself equal parts bibliophile and cinephile; I sometimes genuinely admit that I’m not sure which I would give up if I had to make a choice. For all of that, and for all of my love of classic films, I don’t spend much time reading Hollywood biographies or nonfiction accounts. It’s not that I dislike them, per se (indeed, one of my major podcast addictions these days is Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, a series of great, well-researched tales from Hollywood’s first century); no, more than anything, it’s just that I love fiction enough that I don’t always read as much nonfiction as I wish I did.

Which brings me to Hellraisers, a graphic novel adaptation of a biography of the same name, one that I haven’t read. The author, Robert Sellers, has a good reputation, and the subject matter – drinking stories about four legendary drinkers: Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, and Oliver Reed – is right up my alley. That’s four actors I always enjoy, and there’s something wonderful about hearing about these men’s exploits at their most unhinged and wild.

Which, I suppose, is the appeal of a graphic novel adaptation of these stories, because what’s cut out is the context, the research, the day-to-day life; what’s left are just the stories themselves, from O’Toole buying up a bar that wanted to call closing time so that he could continue drinking to Richard Burton’s alcohol-encased spine. Tied together in a Christmas Carol-inspired plot about an alcoholic visited by these spirits, Hellraisers mainly just serves as a collection of drinking stories – drinking stories, it must be said, that orbit around some of the wildest, most gloriously insane drinkers that ever lived. Yes, there are undeniably scars both physical and psychic left behind, but at its core, this is a book of bar stories, and they’re equal parts hilarious, awe-inspiring, insane, and more than a tad seedy. Anchored by artist JAKe’s collection of caricatures, iconic film scenes, and shadowy transitions, the book moves along with the fluid feeling of a dream, transitioning between scenes, years, and films in the blink of an eye, with the focus always on the myths these men left behind.

As a result of all of that, Hellraisers probably isn’t written for those unfamiliar with these men; it’s a book that expects you to know where we are in O’Toole’s career based off of his entering on a camel from a distance or riding in a director’s chair, and has little interest in wasting time on the exposition around those details. In other words, if you’re not already familiar with the filmographies of these legends, you may be a little lost – heck, I got a bit baffled at points, and I felt pretty comfortably familiar with most of the movies on display. But it’s an undeniably fun collection of stories, and a celebration of a very different era of celebrity than anything we have now – and in some ways, that’s be most compelling, interesting aspect of all.

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower / ****

36694One of the looming specters over the world of traditional animation is the eventual retirement of Hiyao Miyazaki, the undisputed legend of animation, and the mind responsible for films like My Neighbor TotoroSpirited AwayPrincess Mononoke, and more. Miyazaki’s plans to retirement has led to a lot of questions about the future of the iconic animation studio Studio Ghibli, and even with his determination to make another movie, it’s been a source of worry for many fans of animation.

So in many ways, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is incredibly reassuring that the spirit of Ghibli will stay alive. The first film from Studio Ponoc, a studio founded by Ghibli alumni, Mary and the Witch’s Flower feels very much in keeping with the Ghibli model: lush, fluid animation; a wondrous sense of adventure and fun; interesting female protagonists; an imaginative, dazzling mixture of reality and magic; the constant presence of nature as a background; and so much more. The story of a young girl who finds out that she’s a witch, only to find herself in the mix of some supernatural intrigue, Mary is a blast to watch, both visually and as a story. From the opening sequence, which follows another witch as she makes a dramatic escape, Mary is lushly animated and beautiful to watch unfold, especially for those of us who love traditional animation.

Mind you, the easy knock that’s been made about Mary is how derivative it is of Ghibli films, and that’s not an untrue point. From adorable cats and girls on brooms (a la Kiki’s Delivery Service) to creatures that feel like the entities from Spirited Away and Mononoke, down to general structure of the story, Mary definitely feels like a studio trying to show that it can fill the shoes of its predecessor. (In that way, it sometimes feels like Ponoc’s version of The Force Awakens, mixing and matching elements of its forebears while still making a propulsive, wonderful piece of entertainment.) And, yes, the story feels a bit thin at times, with some pacing that feels a little rushed and abbreviated at random points.

And yet, none of that took away from how much I enjoyed Mary beginning to end. It’s exciting, it’s beautiful to watch, and more than anything else, it’s absolutely joyous in a way that so few children’s movies manage. Does Mary and the Witch’s Flower pale a little comparison to the novelty of Ghibli movies? Sure, a bit. But did any of that matter while I watched it? Not in the least.

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