Horror Triple Feature

mpw-39550One of my favorite auteurs of 80’s trash horror is Frank Henenlotter, director behind the wonderfully gonzo Basket Case and its equally twisted, entertaining cousin, Brain Damage. But as much as I love those two, I hadn’t managed to see Henenlotter’s famous follow-up Frankenhooker until today. Luckily, it was worth the wait; while it may have leaned more heavily and clearly on comedy than the other two films, it’s no less wonderfully silly and demented than any other Henenlotter I’ve seen. A very loose retelling of FrankensteinFrankenhooker follows a mad scientist who decides to resurrect his girlfriend after a gruesome lawnmower accident. The problem? There’s not exactly enough of her left…which means it’s time to hit pre-Guiliani Times Square and find some women of the night to use for parts. The result is gorey, splattery insanity, with self-induced cranial pressure relief (in other word: drilling into your own skull), electrified kisses, and, oh yes, exploding hookers. It’s all done with tongue firmly in cheek, with Henenlotter steering more overtly into comedy, but the result is absolutely entertaining as anything, from the mad scientist’s constant self-encouragement to the ludicrous facial expressions on the reconstructed girlfriend. I don’t think Frankenhooker is as good as Basket Case or Brain Damage – I enjoy those film’s ability to balance horror and comedy more than this – but I had a blast watching it anyway. Rating: ****

poster_thirstTo say that Thirst is easily the weakest film I’ve seen to date by Chan-Wook Park sounds like a harshest criticism than it necessarily should be. After all, this is the director behind such films as OldboyLady VengeanceStoker, and The Handmaiden, just to name a few – it would be awfully hard to make it to the top tier of that kind of filmography. And even with Thirst‘s flaws – which largely spring from the film’s pacing issues – there’s little denying that Park brings his usual flair, bizarre sensibility, and beautiful style to bear to this vampire story. After all, who else would let his vampire film largely render its vampiric elements almost irrelevant, instead turning it into a twisted love story about a priest who becomes a vampire thanks to a medical experiment gone wrong, and who then falls in love with the unhappy wife of a childhood friend. If that doesn’t sound like your typical vampire film, well, Thirst really isn’t typical in any way, apart from using vampirism much as Bram Stoker did back in Dracula: as a metaphor for repressed desire, lust, and a wish to break beyond the social and religious strictures that are governing one’s life. Of course, this being a Korean film, exactly how far the characters are willing to go…well, let’s just say that things escalate quite a bit from the early scenes where our “hero” is trying to stick to stolen blood from hospital patients. Thirst is too long by at least twenty minutes, and it doesn’t quite make its lead female character work as well as I wish it did; she feels more simplistic than Park tends to let his female characters be (especially in something like The Handmaiden). Still, even with those flaws, Thirst is rich, interesting fare – a more thoughtful, complicated take on the vampire tale than we often get, and one with enough substance to keep thoughtful audiences satisfied while still delivering violence and horror (and style) to spare. Rating: ****

cronos-mondo-criterion-posterI’m a big, big fan of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, whose fantastical sensibility – and how it blends together with his grasp on horror – has led to some truly great cinema, including Pan’s LabyrinthThe Devil’s Backbone, and most recently (and one of my favorites), Crimson Peak. But somehow, I had never gotten a chance to see del Toro’s feature debut, Cronos, until my wife bought me Criterion’s new Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro box set. Even here, as he’s just getting started and working under a limited budget, there’s no denying del Toro’s rich visual style, his astonishing imagination, nor his unique approach to creatures and horror. The tale of a Mexican antiques dealer (played by Federico Luppi) who stumbles across an ancient invention said to hold the secret of immortality, del Toro brings his usual mixture of fairy tale and horror to bear here, spending equal time establishing the charming relationship between Luppi and his granddaughter and the surreal horrors that this invention can unleash. Like many of del Toro’s films, it slides between fantastical visions and bloody horror  without warning, which makes for an even better watch for the daring viewer (and that doesn’t even get into the genre elements that del Toro allows the film to slowly incorporate). Even better, there are signs even here of del Toro’s astonishing imagination, as he dives into the gears – and weirdly organic elements – of this invention, turning something simple into something arcane and eldritch in the process. That Cronos is a solid, inventive, strange piece of horror goes without saying, knowing del Toro’s involvement; that it largely holds its own against his later work, even with its lower budget and learning curve, is all the more impressive and wonderful. Rating: **** ½

IMDb: Frankenhooker | Thirst | Cronos

Action/Comedy Movies x3

deadpool_ver5Even with all of the good buzz surrounding Deadpool, it’s taken me a bit to get around to seeing it. As much as I worried about Logan being self-consciously “edgy” and “extreme” with its adult rating, those worried paled in comparison to my fears about Deadpool, which I worried would be smug and crass rather than clever. Thankfully, it turned out that, against all odds, Deadpool manages to be gleefully profane, wonderfully childish and chaotic, and somehow nonetheless avoids trading in shock value or anything truly offensive (that is, it may mock everything mercilessly, but there’s a welcome dearth of ethnic jokes, gay panic jokes, and the like). Even better, the result is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny; even without the fourth-wall breaking, Ryan Reynolds’ constant patter and jokes somehow manages to be both entertaining and surprisingly unexhausting (for us, at least; the movie manages to have fun with the amount of hatred he inspires in the villains, and even some of the friends, around him). Yes, at times, Deadpool falls into the standard Marvel formula – origin story, big villain, etc. – and yes, really, beyond Reynolds, most of the characters never really come to life very much beyond what the plot requires. (That’s most true for the film’s use of Colossus as a stand-in for the rest of the X-Men, who really never brings much to the table other than being there.) Even so, with Reynolds and the film constantly taking jabs at itself and its dramatic beats, the result feels surprisingly enjoyable and light, never taking itself seriously for too long. In short, the Marvel movie parts? They’re okay – nothing special. But the humor and patter makes for a really fun watch that I enjoyed more than I expected. Rating: ****

commando-posterOkay, sure, Commando isn’t technically an action-comedy; it’s, on paper at least, a pure 80’s action movie. It’s also perhaps the most quintessential, archetypal example of what we’ve come to think of as the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle – absurd masculinity, lots of gun/fist fights, Arnie being Arnie, and ridiculous one-liners after every major death. Really, Commando has basically enough plot just to lead to lots and lots of action sequences – there’s a man (the always welcome Dan Hedaya, even though he doesn’t get much to do here) who wants Arnie to overthrow a South American country, and to motivate him, he’s kidnapped his daughter. As you might guess, Arnie’s not super on board with this, and decides to take them all out. Every part of what you imagine as 1980’s Arnie action movies is here – gratuitous nudity, sleazy chauvinist bad guys, a love interest who doesn’t really have any chemistry or purpose in the film, lots of absurdly big explosions, homoerotic tension and plenty of one-liners. In other words, it’s not like it’s a good movie, but it’s a really fun one to watch; sure, there’s some regrettably 80’s approaches to the world in here (particularly if you’re a woman), and no, it never really makes any sense. But if you can’t get behind Arnold picking up a phone booth with a bad guy in it and throwing it around, or his fighting about twenty cops at once and throwing them all off at the same time, well, what kind of garbage film lover are you? Rating: *** ½

czqsvbgumaayhmz-jpg-largeMeanwhile, if Commando is an action movie that occasionally gets ridiculous, Keanu, the first film by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key after the end of their series Key and Peele, is a comedy that occasionally becomes an action film. The story of two African-American friends who pretend to be ruthless underworld criminals in an effort to get back a missing cat, Keanu is undeniably uneven and a bit thin at times, stretching a solid premise for a few skits to the breaking point and a bit beyond. Luckily, Keanu also features the ridiculous charisma and comic timing of Key and Peele, who never look like they’re working hard to make you laugh, but whose comic timing is absolutely impeccable and dead on at all times. (Also working for the film: an absolutely adorable kitten.) As you might expect, coming from a sketch show background, Keanu feels a bit disconnected at times, with some sequences feeling like sketches loosely connected to the story. That doesn’t make it any less funny to see Key attempting to sell a bunch of hardened street kids on the cred of George Michael, or to see Peele trying to convince everyone in a Truth or Dare game just how hardened and ruthless he is. But it does mean that the film is fairly hit and miss, with more plot than we really need (a fact I think the movie is in on, given how silly it gets in the final stretch). Nonetheless, all I can say is that I laughed pretty frequently throughout Keanu, and if a lot of that is simply thanks to Key and Peele’s fantastic comic presences, well, that’s no small thing. Rating: *** ½

IMDb: Deadpool | Commando | Keanu

Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman / *****

61ydlztifql-_sx326_bo1204203200_There is no logical reason that Anno Dracula should work, honestly. To call Anno Dracula “overly ambitious fan fiction” wouldn’t seem like a bad idea, based off of the description of the novel. After all, this is a book in which Bram Stoker’s Dracula ascends to the British throne by marrying the Queen, resulting in the emergence of vampires out of the shadows. Oh, and it also means that Bram Stoker has been arrested for trying to write the book – which is better than what happened to Abraham van Helsing. But not content with just writing a sequel to Dracula, Newman turns Anno Dracula into a positive maelstrom of cultural, literary, and social references, with Sherlock Holmes (and his brother Mycroft, as well as more than a few other Holmesian supporting characters), the good doctors Moreau and Jekyll, Gilbert and Sullivan characters, opera icons – oh, and Jack the Ripper, of course. Indeed, it’s such a dense web of allusions both fictional and factual that this anniversary edition has a multi-page guide to some of the more obscure ones after the book ends.

And yet, not only does Anno Dracula succeed, it’s an absolute blast of a book, focusing on telling a great story rather than just playing an elaborate game of “spot the reference”. Using the Ripper’s crimes as a framework, Newman dives deeply into his alternate history, exploring how Victorian England might have shifted with the introduction of vampires, diving into the mythology of vampires (as well as the politics, given that they might not all be fans of the famed Count), exploring how class politics might change with the possibility of “turning”, and more. Rather than just telling a simple vampire story, in other words, Newman builds a whole alternate universe, and takes his time exploring it, following every small change and watching as it ripples outward, and investing us in disputes ranging from paid murder to broken engagements.

More than that, Newman invests us in his characters, letting the sides of his book be populated with the allusions and giving us his own original takes for our heroes (and some of the villains). From the outwardly mild-mannered Charles Beauregard (who covertly works for Conan Doyle’s infamous Diogenes Club) to Newman’s fascinating elder vampire Genevieve Dieudonne (older, indeed, than Dracula, and somewhat disgusted by the violence and depravity of the Count), Newman doesn’t just create an interesting, rich world; he gives us characters that we enjoy and care about, and makes their stories every bit as important as the macro story going on behind them. Indeed, despite the title, Dracula himself is barely in the book as a character, instead mainly working as scene-setting – although his eventual appearance is well worth the wait.

Yes, Newman has some great ideas about vampires (my favorite is the “murgatroyds,” vampires who wear capes and act like, well, stereotypical vampires in an effort to appear fashionable); yes, his use of the Ripper makes for a great hook for the book, particularly with the identity of the Ripper in the novel and his motivations. But more than anything else, every single page of Anno Dracula is just dripping with imagination and surprises. From obscure allusions to surprising cultural shifts, from character evolutions to horrific violence, Anno Dracula is, first and foremost, a fantastic piece of storytelling. I got swept up into this ambitious, wonderful world, and I’m glad to know that Newman kept it going – I’m guessing that he’s like me, and just didn’t want to have to leave it.

Amazon

 

Coilhunter, by Dean F. Wilson / ****

51nzzo74xkl-_sy445_ql70_For a while, all I knew of Dean F. Wilson’s work was The Great Iron War series, a rich, involving steampunk war saga that I thoroughly enjoyed. Wilson’s prose was direct and effective – he had a clarity to his prose that befitted his action sequences, always keeping the battles clear, the environment understandable, and the various players clearly defined. What I didn’t realize – not until I read the first entry in Wilson’s Children of Agon series – was that Wilson’s prose was pared down and concise by design, not because that was just his style. Because Children of Agon read like Tolkien – it was epic fantasy, with dense, poetic prose and style to spare.

I mention this because, without that context, it could be easy to dismiss Coilhunter‘s prose as excessively colorful or too much. But within a couple of pages, I realized that that wasn’t a bug in Coilhunter; it was the design, creating a book that lived and breathed its Western atmosphere in every single word. With verbose killers, colorful turns of speech, and all sorts of fun writing, Coilhunter ends up being a lot of fun, and the prose is part of that, creating a rich, lived-in tapestry.

That Wilson is good as Westerns isn’t a surprise; what’s surprising to me is that Coilhunter is a Western in the first place, since it’s technically set in the same world as Wilson’s grim Great Iron War series. Wilson’s taken one of his more fascinating character – the titular Coilhunter, who makes his living as a bounty hunter in the less settled parts of that world – and written a book around him. The plot is pretty traditional fare, especially for the Western genre: the Coilhunter chases bounties, only to find that one he’s taken up could lead him to the killers of his family. But Wilson takes it on with style and panache, bringing his sci-fi steampunk Western world to vivid life, filling the pages with interesting characters and odd locales, and making it stand on its own.

More than that, Wilson has a great lead character in the Coilhunter, whose gadgets, tricks, and lethal abilities make him both a great hero and an exciting one to watch. Like so many Westerns, the question isn’t really if the Coilhunter is going to succeed; the question is, how will he pull it off. Even more to the point, though, Wilson makes his Western world all its own, making it stand out from the Great Iron War to the point where it feels less like a spinoff and more like its own series. With bounty hunter towns, old friends, and spectacular lawless zones, Wilson brings the world – and the characters – to life in a satisfying way, all while peppering things with his usual strong action sequences.

If there’s a knock on Coilhunter, it’s that the story feels more generic and formulaic than I’ve come to expect from Wilson; there’s little sense of surprise in what happens here or how things unfold. None of that keeps the book from being engaging or entertaining, mind you; it’s executed well enough that I tore through it quickly, eager to stay in this world for a while. But I’m more excited to see what happens in the next books in the series, now that Wilson has set the stage and cleared off some of the necessary backstory to get things moving. Here’s hoping it comes soon.

Amazon

The Leftovers (Season 3) / *****

the-leftovers-season-3-posterI’ve been a fan of The Leftovers since the beginning – yes, even that infamous first season, which I think is phenomenal television and gets an unfairly bad rap. (That’s not to say it’s not a bleak and draining experience, but I think people complain far too much about it.) Then came the second season, which managed to be even better – keeping all the themes and ideas of the first season, but turning into something more darkly funny and slightly more accessible, all while never compromising in the least.

And now, the show has ended with its best season yet, which went even further than the second, delivering some of the wildest, strangest, most ambitious hours of television I’ve seen in years, all while never leaving behind its basic themes: an exploration of grief, faith, doubt, and purpose in a hostile – or even worse, indifferent – universe. That’s heady, astonishing fare even for prestige television, but The Leftovers never flinches from its mission, exploring how faith can both give us purpose and blind us to reality, how suffering and pain are an essential part of the human experience but no less devastating for their necessity, how death leaves us walking wounded.

In lesser hands, The Leftovers would be overwhelmingly crushing (see that first season, which came close). But in the hands of Damon Lindelof, it’s one of the most remarkable, inventive, surreal, and powerful shows I’ve ever seen. What other show could take a throwaway joke about a beloved 80’s sitcom from season one, then twist it until it became a powerful scene about finding yourself rejected by the world and even the universe as a whole? What other show could take a character’s struggle with faith and have it culminate with an episode involving God, a sex cruise, and a lion? What other show could kick things off with a series of increasingly ludicrous bio-scanners (and one of the all-time funniest sound effects on a tv series), but end by forcing us to carry through an infamous and horrific nuclear deterrent? And honestly, I’m only scratching the surface of a season that delved into Australian Aboriginal culture, apocalyptic fears, damaged relationships, suicidal tendencies, but also a slow-motion trampoline sequence set to the Wu-Tang Clan, pratfalls, and a surprising number of penis jokes. The Leftovers has always been its own unique show, but never more than this season, when it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television – and I’m watching Twin Peaks right now. It’s unpredictable but always consistent, surreal but always comprehensible, surprising but logical – in other words, it was a constant joy to tune in, simply because I never knew what to expect, but it was always going to be great.

In other words, as The Leftovers hit its final season, its confidence grew, and the show was willing to go for broke, making its characters’ struggles literal, tangible, and even operatic in their stakes. These are big questions – questions about God, about why we suffer, why people die, how we can find happiness, what happens to us after we die, and the importance (or lack thereof) of faith. And rather than giving glib, simplistic takes or easy answers, Lindelof embraces the complexity and difficulty of these issues, exploring them and refusing to ever give us – or the characters – easy answers. The Leftovers has always been a show about uncertainty, a feat it managed to the end, somehow finding the absolute perfect way to handle the question of “What exactly happened in the Departure?” in a way that perfectly matches the show’s themes.

It doesn’t hurt that the show is anchored by such great performances. Christopher Eccleston’s religious figure Matt is all the more compelling and rich this year, as his faith leads him in some bizarre – and maybe delusional – places. Scott Glenn finally gets some showcases after far too long, carrying an episode on his back largely with his weathered, questioning face. Justin Theroux is as great as ever, mixing despair, anger, doubt, and public confidence in a way that’s instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever struggled with the moodiness that comes with depression. And best of all, there’s Carrie Coon’s wounded, bristly Nora Durst, perhaps the single person most affected by the Departure, whose pain can’t be covered up, no matter how tough her exterior can be. There’s any number of other great actors here, including a few I don’t want to spoil (but will be welcome appearances for fans), but the show’s main cast truly does remarkable work, investing us in these wounded, hurt people and following them as they grapple with issues that every single one of us grapple with as well.

Look, I know that so much of what I’m saying makes The Leftovers sound like work, or like seriously heavy fare. And make no mistake – the questions, the struggles, the themes of this series are huge ones, universal ones that are going to hit home for many of us, and evoke painful personal moments. But in the end, the reason The Leftovers works is that, for all of its questions, for all of its doubts, for all of its fears, it finds optimism and a reason to keep on, even in the midst of it all. Whether that be faith or family, relationships or purpose, The Leftovers ends up being far more reaffirming than you might expect for a show that’s so much about death, grief, and loss. And that optimism and hope is something very much worth remembering, maybe now more than ever.

IMDb

The Crossing, by Michael Connelly / **** ½

51-j9ahfjllFor a long time, my general rule of thumb on Michael Connelly was that his series were great, but anytime he did a crossover novel – A Darkness More than Night‘s meeting between Bosch and Terry McCaleb, for instance, or The Narrows, which found Bosch investigating the killer from The Poet – the results were invariably among his weakest work. And yet, somehow that rule has been broken once Connelly starting combining Harry Bosch, the dedicated cop, and Mickey Haller, the effective (if grandstanding) attorney. Part of that, I think, is that these characters contrast nicely with each other, giving them wildly different perspectives on the world, and different approaches to the same problems. But part of that also comes from how each character has developed over time, to the point where we know not only how complicated they are internally, but how they project a different side of themselves that isn’t always accurate.

The last collaboration between the two came from Haller’s perspective, so it seems only fair to switch to Bosch’s for The Crossing, which finds Bosch finally leaving behind the police life once and for all by crossing the line into helping a defense attorney. That the man is his half-brother doesn’t matter; that this is genuinely a case of justice gone wrong, even less. No, for Bosch – and for many of his former brothers in blue – the taking of this case is the final move away from being a homicide detective and from how Bosch defines himself, and that’s no small thing. Thankfully, Connelly treats it as such, making Bosch’s self-questioning as much of the book’s content as the case he’s investigating (as well as allowing Bosch to constantly weigh his sense of justice against Haller’s trial-based approach to the world).

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Connelly’s gift for plotting has only gotten better over time, this time creating an intricate web of murder and blackmail that only gradually reveals itself as, once again, tying into the zeitgeist as Connelly so often does. From casual references to Ferguson to community police relations, Connelly makes the book contemporary while never beating the reader over the head. As for the murder case itself, the motivations and plotting are great and fascinating; admittedly, some of the mechanics and logistics of what happens are a little over the top, but I’ll let it slide in favor of a good story.

But best of all, The Crossing once again shows Connelly’s ability to keep the Bosch series fresh and evolving, even after 20 years. From an active police beat to cold cases, the Bosch series has changed with its hero, letting his job shift as his career and personality dictate. And The Crossing finds Bosch trying to figure out who he’s going to be if he’s not a policeman anymore. And while he may not stay a defense attorney’s investigator for more than one book, it’s a sign of what kind of character that Bosch is that I’m willing to follow him for no matter what comes next in his life.

Amazon

Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears / *** ½

371638A collection of 21 stories inspired by fairy tales, Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears can be hard to describe. Yes, generally, the collection favors dark, “mature” takes on fairy tales (sexuality and violence are prevalent here). Yes, there’s a nice feminist undercurrent here, with passive women characters being given more agency. But really, the biggest weakness of Ruby Slippers is also its biggest strength: its diversity in approach. Some stories modernize the fairy tales, while others retell classic ones from a different perspective. Some are funny, some are horrific, some are dramatic. And while that leads to a more variety-filled and surprising experience, it also keeps the collection from feeling as cohesive or unified as it feels like it should, and leads to a bumpy reading experience as we jump from genre to genre and tone to tone.

That shouldn’t be taken to mean that there aren’t some fantastic stories here. John Brunner’s “The Emperor Who Had Never Seen a Dragon” dives into (what I assume is) Chinese folklore to tell the story of a demanding, arrogant emperor and his quest for glory, while Ellen Steiber’s “The Fox Wife” takes on the Japanese trickster fox. Gahan Wilson brings his usual dark humor to “Hansel and Grettel,” turning the iconic orphans into cocky social climbers who always feel the need to outdo everyone else. Roberta Lannes’s “Roach in Loafers” brings Puss in Boots (despite the anthology’s comment that this is “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” this is a fairly obvious “Puss in Boots” homage) to modern-day society with a great twist and a sense of humor. “Billy Fearless,” by Nancy Collins, creates a rural fairy tale with a wonderful voice, and Delia Sherman’s “The Printer’s Daughter” ends the collection on a surprisingly sweet and funny note, following a printer that’s made his daughter half out of sermons and half out of, shall we say, “adult” material.

That sounds like a lot of great material, and to be fair, the collection feels generally strong. There aren’t any pure misfires that I can think of, and a decent percentage of good ones. But the problem comes in how vague many of the stories go, feeling as though referring to fairy tales or just telling them in a new way should be appeal enough. That’s preferable to the cavalcade of “grimdark” stories, which mainly find ways to tell the fairy tales with added emphasis on brutality and violence. “The Princess and the Pea” becomes about a sadistic ruler and his mutilated servant who just wants to see women die. The updated “Match Girl” becomes a tour of rape and prostitution. “Beauty and the Beast” becomes about the pursuit of happiness and the desire to take it by force. And so on and so forth. It’s not that any of them are ever quite bad, per se, but it so often feels violent for its own sake, and without as much interesting to say as you would hope, other than “oh, I reimagined this fairy tale and now it’s for adults.”

The thing is, there are some great stories in Ruby Slippers, and a few that will no doubt stick with me. But it’s the rare case where some more focus and editorial control might help the collection – it would help it feel more focused, perhaps, but it could also cut down on the “fairy tales after dark” vibe that the collection falls into sometimes. It’s a decent collection, with some strong highlights, but I can’t say I’d recommend reading it all of a piece.

Amazon