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

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.


Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, by Robert Charles Wilson / ***** 

51enpomf6alHaving read a pretty large swath of Robert Charles Wilson’s bibliography, I feel pretty comfortable in saying that I generally know what to expect from him. Wilson is a big picture kind of author; he takes what could easily be pulp sci-fi conceits – one day, the stars all disappear, all over the world; a series of monuments appear commemorating the future victories of a despotic warlord; aliens arrive at Earth and extend the offer of immortality – and explores them in remarkable depth, watching what would happen to society in the wake of such world-changing events. He explores religious, social, cultural, and even political ramifications, watching how a single moment can change our pictures of ourselves and our society.

And yet, while that aspect of Wilson is completely evident in Julian Comstock – this is, as the novel’s subtitle suggests, a novel of the 22nd century, set in an America that survived after oil ran out by turning back the technological clock, and at the same time, turned itself into a religious theocracy – this is also a wildly different book for him, one that feels more character-driven, more personal, and less sprawling. It’s a story more intimate than any I’ve really seen from Wilson before, and for all of its rich ideas and worldbuilding, at its core, it’s the story of two friends and their lives in this world so clearly inspired by ours, whether for good or for bad.

That different feel is evident as soon as the book’s structure reveals itself as a memoir – and more importantly, the memoir not of our main character, Adam Hazzard, but of his friend, the famous Julian Comstock. It follows our heroes from their unlikely boyhood together, through their times in war, all the way to the source of Julian’s fame – or infamy, depending on who you ask. It’s a humble-feeling book, one that feels like a tribute to a friend, and an effort to humanize an icon. But it’s also a great adventure story, and a coming of age story, as we watch these two boys become men and grapple with their place in the world.

If that sounds more conventional than you might expect from Wilson, well, that’s okay; rest assured, Wilson brings his usual gift for worldbuilding and scope to bear in his setting, as we come to understand more and more not only what 22nd-century America is, but how it came to be. We see how the oil shortages became rebranded as a “Tribulation,” and how the government and church came to unify. We see how the class system shifted, revolving around indentured servitude rather than freedom, and how ideas like science and Darwinism faded from the public conscience – but never went away. And that’s where Wilson finds much of his drama, as Julian becomes a crusader for science and rationalism in a world that doesn’t always welcome it.

All of that would be more than enough for most books, but Wilson brings even more to the book in the voice of our narrator, Adam Hazzard, a sheltered, less rebellious figure who doesn’t always fully appreciate the gap between what he thinks he knows and what’s really going on. (A tip: keep Google Translate handy for any passage of foreign language; the play between what people are saying and what Adam knows is always fun, and sometimes surprisingly illuminating.) Wilson plays with Adam’s naive perspective beautifully, letting him not always pick up on the subtextual relationships between people, or sometimes completely misread a situation – something Wilson never goes out of his way correct. It all works to make Adam a winning, endearing character, one whose sheltered worldview and warm, if naive, perspective give the book a rich flavor all its own.

Julian Comstock may not have the impact or scope of some of Wilson’s best works, but in the end, it may be his richest, warmest, and most accessible book. What he’s gotten away from in scope he’s picked up in characterization and vibrancy, making this one of the first books of his I’ve read that invested me more in the characters and their lives than it did the ideas and impact of its story. It’s a great read from one of the best science-fiction authors working today, and a nice reminder of how great it can be to find those moments when authors step out of their comfort zone to do something different.


God is Disappointed in You, by Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler / ****

may131278-_sx360_ql80_ttd_Whatever you might think of it, and despite it being one of the most influential books ever written (and how many people name it as their “favorite book”), you would be hard pressed to argue that the Bible remains one of the least read “important” books ever written. That’s not to say that people don’t study it, or dig into certain passages or sections – but the idea of actually studying the text, of reading the book from cover to cover, rarely seems to happen. And that’s understandable, given how often the Bible reflects its ancient roots, diving into the intricacies of scriptural doctrine, long family histories, historical records, and more.

All of which makes God Is Disappointed in You such an interesting idea. What author Mark Russell (along with contributions from cartoonist Shannon Wheeler) has done is retell the Bible, reducing each book to a few pages and summarizing it as though it were a story (or, in the case of Psalms, a greatest hits album; meanwhile, Hebrews becomes an FAQ about doctrinal changes). Moreover, he does so with a sharp sense of humor, telling the stories with a flair for the comic, up to and including a bit more profanity than you might expect from a telling of the Bible (where, honestly, you would assume a level of pretty close to “zero”).

The outcome is undoubtedly “irreverent,” but never to the level of “blasphemous” or “disrespectful”. What makes God Is Disappointed in You so interesting is the fact that Russell treats the Bible with admiration and respect; his humor comes from his dialogue, his phrasing, and the text itself, not from assuming a mocking tone towards the text itself. Rather, he conveys the anger and frustration that God and/or the prophets so often feel, turning the book into the history of a people loved by a God that they cannot remain faithful to. It’s equal parts comical and profound, allowing Russell to grapple with the major questions and ideas of the book while removing the sidebars and extra details.

The result, no doubt, will still offend purists, and those who feel, to quote a bumper sticker I once saw, that “if it ain’t King James, it ain’t the Bible.” But that’s a shame, because God is Disappointed in You is more respectful, thoughtful, and heartfelt than you might expect from the summary I’m giving you. Yes, it’s done with humor; yes, it has some profanity in there. And yet, it’s also a faithful recapping of every single book in the Bible, conveying the stories, the lessons, the parables, and the meanings, all in a modern dialogue and with a sense of fun. That’s an admirable goal. And if God Is Disappointed in You doesn’t always seem to know what it’s trying to do – if it can’t always strike that balance between humor, religion, and seriousness – that’s okay. (Same goes for Wheeler’s drawings, which are fun but feel like they’re thrown into the book without much purpose.) It’s a pretty daunting task that Russell has taken on, and the fact that it works as well as it does – and might lead to people actually reading this “most influential” book – makes it a worthwhile endeavor.

The fact that it’s pretty entertaining and enjoyable? Even better, and the main reason I recommend it.


Little Heaven, by Nick Cutter / *****

little-heaven-9781501104213_hrI’ve been telling people that Nick Cutter’s new horror epic Little Heaven reads as though Cormac McCarthy was inspired to write a horror novel after reading Stephen King’s It, and while that seems like I’m being hyperbolic, I assure you, that’s not the case. Little Heaven finds Cutter mimicking McCarthy’s voice in many ways – including old-fashioned, uncontracted dialogue, baroque descriptions, and more – but also aping the master’s content. Because in no small way, Little Heaven feels like a neo-Western, the story of three hired guns who get brought in to rescue a boy in distress from a hostile compound, only to end up far out of their depth as horrors emerge. The fact that the book takes place in the 1960’s and 80’s is irrelevant; this feels like the story of hard men (and women) on the verge of normal civilization. More than that, as is the case so often with McCarthy, these characters live in a morally complex world, one governed by violence, their own internal codes, and their own bleak, vicious worldviews.

And yet, there’s no denying the influence of It on Little Heaven either. Taking place across two time periods, Cutter cuts back and forth between the two. He opens in the 1980’s, years after these gunfighters’ initial confrontation with some imaginable evil, only to find that evil awakening again and coming back for them. Even early on, though, Cutter shows that he’s doing something different with the story, hinting that our characters didn’t just gain nightmares and trauma from that 1960’s encounter; they’ve gained something awful, some Faustian deal that’s hurt them more than helped. And as Cutter begins to dive into the story of what happened in the 1960’s – the effort to rescue a young boy from a religious compound run by an increasingly paranoid preacher – we start to see that this isn’t only a story about supernatural evil, but about the evil within men, as well.

Ultimately, that’s the answer to the fact of what makes Little Heaven so good, and so rich. If all the book did was ape It or McCarthy, it might be fun, but it wouldn’t be as phenomenal as Little Heaven is. Instead, Cutter’s story plunges us deeper and deeper into madness, slowly increasing the level of horror around the characters and never letting up. More than that, though, he spends as much time in the head of his human villains as he does our heroes, turning the story into something more disturbing than it might be otherwise. Is this a tale of a religious cult corrupted by a primal evil, or about an evil man who crosses an unspeakable line? It’s hard to know which would be less disturbing, and to Cutter’s credit, he doesn’t give us an easy answer.

Because, yes, this religious compound in the woods is surrounded by something dark, malevolent, and unspeakable. But what’s going on the compound itself is no less horrific, as children begin disappearing, and people turn the other way, never wanting to acknowledge what’s happening. Whether that’s because they’re blinded by faith, or something supernatural, doesn’t matter; what matters is that it happens. It says more than a little bit that it’s hard to know what Cutter’s most horrific creation is: the shapeshifting, surreal horrors in the woods, or the disturbed villains we keep seeing…or even our heroes themselves, whose lives of violence and brutality are part of their lives.

Cutter is known as a brutal, go-for-broke horror writer, and Little Heaven is no exception to that rule; this is surreal, disturbing, and truly scary, and that’s before we get to how black-hearted and upsetting the core of the book is. More than that, Cutter follows his dark story to its logical conclusion, giving us darker deeds than even Pennywise managed, and making his heroes more complicit and less of a symbol of good. Combining that with the horrific end of the Little Heaven compound, and the result is a horror novel that gets not only under your skin, but may viscerally upset you in no small way. And for me to say that about a horror novel…well, that’s no small feat.

Here’s the final verdict: this is a searing, vicious, brutal horror novel, one that marries McCarthy’s stark prose and world with an ambitious, strange story of evil, sacrifice, and faith. And, yes, it owes much to its inspirations…but it also stands on its own, turning those inspirations into something new, something more than the sum of their parts, and creating something visceral and effective. It won’t be for all tastes – it’s wonderfully literate and careful, and too extreme for many – but for those on board with its efforts, they’ll be rewarded and then some.


Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang / *****

51fhqvpotulLike many people (I assume), I had never heard of author Ted Chiang before seeing the remarkable film Arrival, based off of his story “Story of Your Life”. But given my deep love of that film – and the heady, complex concepts it covers – I was intrigued to see what kind of story could have inspired such a complex piece of work. That only deepened as I heard more about Chiang – his astonishing reputation, the comments that the film was much more like the story than you might expect, etc.

Chiang isn’t exactly a prolific author; he mainly writes novellas and short stories, and it’s notable that this collection represents a large percentage of what he’s written, period. And yet, almost every one of these stories was released to astonishing acclaim, awards, and praise; what Chiang may lack in quantity, he more than makes up for in quality, given than this collection features some of the most fascinating, astonishing, thoughtful pieces of science fiction writing I have ever read, period.

Much like you might expect from Arrival, Chiang takes on complex, heady ideas, and runs with them in imaginative ways that push them to their utmost. The opening story, “Tower of Babylon,” is essentially a retelling of the Tower of Babel story…at first. But in Chiang’s rendition, the tower has reached Heaven. Entire communities exist at various points on the tower, adjusted to life at that point. Plants grow downward, in an effort to reach down to the sun, which the tower has surpassed. Stars crash into apartments. Bricks fall from the tower and are more heartbreaking to lose than people, simply because of the time to replace. And if all that’s not enough, there’s what’s waiting for them at the top, which is both astonishing and inevitable, adding even more complexity to Chiang’s rich world.

Or take “Seventy-Two Words,” in which Chiang imagines an alternate history in which the idea of the golem – an inanimate object brought to life by a sheet of paper with its name – becomes a field of study and a way of life. The nature of names becomes its own science, as automatons are shaped and reformed throughout generations. And what’s more, by understanding how these automatons work, we come to understand how human beings work, on a biological and spiritual level, in ways that we never imagined. Perhaps you’re more intrigued by “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” an oral history of a movement to shut off the parts of our brain that perceive physical beauty, and the social ramifications that follow. And if those aren’t enough, there’s the incredible “Hell is the Absence of God,” set in a world where divine appearances happen often, divine powers are applied inscrutably, and one man struggles with whether or not to believe in a God he perceives as cruel and heartless.

Chiang is a truly astonishing author, one whose ideas and worlds are so rich that they could sustain whole series of novels, not just short novellas. Even his shortest work, a faux scientific journal article that’s only a couple of pages long, gives hints about an entire alternative history of the world that he’s created in just a few pages. And yet, he never loses the chance to invest us in his characters and their worlds, filling his pages with moral questions, minor details, emotional beats, and more. That, of course, is much of what makes “Story of Your Life” so rich, as anyone who’s seen Arrival knows; that story marries rich, complex, thought-provoking ideas with an emotionally resonant, devastating hook that makes the story all the more powerful.

Chiang is that rarest of things: an incredible author who, like George Saunders, seems happiest working in short bursts, and yet one who constantly leaves you wanting more. The stories in this collection are, no exaggeration, some of the finest, richest storytelling I’ve read, leaving me thinking about their images, ideas, worlds, and characters long after I shut the book. It saddens me that there’s not much else out there of his to discover, but I’m excited to go see what I can find, and then join those who wait for his every new release.


Big Machine, by Victor LaValle / *****

512bmkk3mwkl-_sx326_bo1204203200_The more books I read, the more excited I get when I read something new and unclassifiable. Another vampire book, another zombie apocalypse? Yawn. But give me something ambitious, something wild, something that defies easy description – and you have my attention. And rarely has that description applied to a book more than it does to Victor LaValle’s incredible, ambitious, surreal Big Machine, a book that’s part horror, part weird tale, part meditation on class and race in America, part exploration of faith and doubt, and part comic book story. And it works all the better for the way it tosses all of those into a blender and just embraces the chaos that results.

To try to summarize Big Machine is a fool’s errand, but the basic hook is a good one: it’s the story of Ricky Rice, a black man who’s ended up working as a janitor in a bus station. And his life seems…okay. It’s not what he wanted, and you get the sense that Ricky could be doing more, but he’s made his peace with how he’s ended up. And then, one day, Ricky gets a letter from an unknown sender. In that letter is a bus ticket, and a reminder that he made a promise. And based off of that, Ricky takes the bus, and leaves his old life behind.

That’s an intriguing setup, and all of that is even before we find out about the nature of that promise, and why Ricky is so baffled to be reminded of it; that’s before we find out about Ricky’s new job, which involves an organization that seems to recruit African-Americans whose lives have fallen apart, and gives them a new purpose – one that they’re not really interested in explaining. And that’s before things start getting weird, and then just keep getting weirder. Big Machine is nothing if not ambitious, and I loved the way the book started in a grounded reality, only to slowly slide into something mixture of religious belief, Weird fiction, and secret history of the underclass.

But even before you get to the plotting, there’s a sense that Big Machine isn’t the book you might think it is, and it comes early on, as Ricky takes his bus ride, and ends up dealing with a street-preaching lunatic on the bus. It’s an odd scene, and a quick one, but it also gives you a sense that Big Machine is discussing something larger: the way we treat our outcasts, the way we treat those less fortunate than ourselves. And although the scene doesn’t pertain to the plot, in many ways, it’s my favorite scene in the book, setting the stage for the larger ideas that LaValle will be dealing with later on.

Because, make no mistake, although this is a wonderfully odd book, one that feels like a race-based superhero story at times, and other times feels like an X-Files episode gone truly surreal, it’s also an undeniably literary one, one that uses its supernatural trappings as a way of exploring race, class, and faith in America. It’s a book that’s fascinated by how we treat the homeless, and the rage that they must feel; it’s a book that makes outcasts its heroes, and reminds us how powerful it can be to get a helping hand when you’ve given up on the world; it’s a book that explores faith not in terms of religion, but in terms of how it can shape your life, and how religion can make us better – or worse – people. And that only becomes clearer and clearer as the book continues, and we meet revolutionary prophets for the homeless, understand Ricky’s childhood in all its horrific context, and begin to come to an understanding of the fact that the only real way to solve the book’s mysteries has nothing to do with the mystical creatures Ricky uncovers.

Indeed, if there’s a complaint I sort of understand about Big Machine, it’s the strange ending, which seems to reject everything the book has been throwing at us. And yet, on a second read of the book, I love that ending even more, because of its humanity, its humane outlook, and its surprising optimism. Big Machine is a book of conspiracies, of horrors, of violence, and of dark pasts…but it’s also a book that believes in change and the future. And that’s a rare and wonderful thing to find.