Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Halloween Movies of Choice: Movies 13-16

An obvious homage to the
Evil Dead series.
It's a four-movie post today in order to get me almost all caught up.  I decided today's theme would be zombies!  Of course there are about a ten thousand zombie-related movies, so choosing just a four for one post was a daunting task.  The questions I asked myself were many.  Which seem the most Halloweeny?  Which are particularly fun or classic examples of the genre?  Which bear repeat viewings?  I'm sure my list will vary widely from yours, but below are those that for me stand out as either so classic, fun, bizarre, goofy, or even genuinely scary that I had to include them.

Note - Many SPOILERS below.  So, so many.

13.  Night of the Living Dead (1968)

My choice for "classic zombie movie" is Night of the Living Dead.  There are a bevy of "Night of Whatever" movies or "Day of the Whatever" or "Dead Whatever" movies, so it's almost impossible to keep track.  Still, this is the one I think establishes so much of the genre, and is still a really excellent creepy Halloween movie today.

This is a grim film from beginning to end, with no light humor to break things up.  It takes itself seriously, even though the scenes where people are eating entrails are not particularly realistic.  Still, they are pretty ooky and gory, even in black and white (definitely see the black and white version).  The zombies come from everywhere in this film, both inside and outside.  As the people in the house get killed, they get converted and start munching.  People do the now-canonical freak-out thing where they threaten each other.  When the ending comes, it is a total shock, watching how and why the hero loses.  The movie comes off as both horror and tragedy, and today, what with our sensibilities so shifted, it also has moments of unintentional humor.  For lots of creepy shambling zombie goodness, it doesn't get much better.  All together it makes for good Halloweeny viewing.

14.  Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies (2012)

This is just as good as a campy 'B' movie can get. Abe runs around through the whole thing with a specially "modified" scythe.  Abe broke the handle in half when he was a boy, and now wields it much like a giant switchblade, flicking it open and closed with ease. There are a plethora of wonderful scenes in slow motion, with fog or smoke blowing around and zombie heads flying. When the zombie heads are not flying, that's because the zombies are being bashed to "death" with rakes, hoes, sticks, and anything else that's lying around.

The movie works entirely because of the Abe Lincoln performance.  The actor plays it completely straight, no side chuckles or winks.  Whenever he is on the screen the movie is interesting, and there is no scene he does not steal.  Even when the movie has Abe meeting his former lover, now turned prostitute, it is presented as a serious scene.  The juxtaposition with the plot and all the zombie bashing is utter hilarity.

There are some regrettably slow paced sections that could easily have been edited out, but they are good spots to go get more popcorn.  The movie should also have ended ten minutes before it did, that is, right after Abe gives a very convincing Gettysburg Address.  This might even have been moving if you hadn't already heard Abe using these and other rather more ludicrous lines during zombie combat, (i.e. "Emancipate this!" - Yes. This is said.)  Overall, it's fantastic Halloween zombie fun.

15.  Evil Dead II (1987)

It took me a long time to come to the Evil Dead series, and I still haven't seen much of it.  But it is obvious even from one viewing that Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn is amazing zombie spoof film making.  Some might argue that these creatures are possessed corpses, not zombies.  But since they do all the zombie trope things, and look like zombies, and no doubt smell like zombies, this film firmly fits the zombie category in my mind.

I already mentioned I like stop motion animation, and there is some wonderful and goofy animation here.  But the scene that sticks with me isn't filled with animation at all, it is our hero Ash struggling with his own possessed hand.  Before he manages to sever it from his body, the hand smashes plates over his head, beats him in the face, and even flips his whole body over.  It is an amazing bit of slapstick acting.   

There certainly isn't much of a plot - just a scaffold to get us from one zombie gore fest to another.  We eventually find Ash heavily armed with both a buzz saw and a sawed off shotgun, to which he says "Groovy" and continues his struggle with the forces of evil.  The ending is only there to tell us that there is going to be a sequel.  But the movie works because all the scenes are over the top fun.  For some trope-making zombie Halloween cinema, this is good popcorn viewing.

16.  The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Remember I said SPOILERS?  You have to go watch this one and then come back here.  Right?  Good.   

The Cabin in the Woods is a really stellar Halloween flick that starts with zombie attacks and ends up with more monsters than you can imagine.  The movie opens as your nominal horror film with a group of young friends headed into the woods for a fun weekend off the grid.  What's weird, though, is that the movie keeps bringing the viewer back to shots of the interior of some kind of high-tech facility, where people are milling about doing what might seem like mundane government jobs.  This juxtaposition of scenes makes for great viewing, even on repeat viewings when we know what is happening.

As the movie goes forward we see that the workers in the facility are manipulating the young people, and eventually lead them to unleash a horror on themselves.  We go through some standard movie zombie attacks, but they are handled really well, with good pacing.  And they are obviously designed to be so cliche that we are trapped between laughing and grossing out.  The scenes of the workers reacting with a mix of reverence and nonchalance to the death of the first student is super entertaining creepiness.  Some of the workers are just disgusting with their disregard for life, going so far as to bet on the means whereby the students will meet their end, and so you end up hoping they get some kind of comeuppance.

We begin to understand that all this horror is some kind of rite, with the workers making sure that the young people all die, and even in the "right" order.  The workers are gleeful when it seems that they have succeeded.  Alas for the workers, one of the students (the Fool) has resisted their manipulations through copious use of pot.  He and another of the students (the Virgin) find their way into the facility, which is built below the cabin.  For me this is the best and most Halloweeny part of the movie, as the students find imprisoned in the facility all kinds of horror movie monsters, from ghosts and werewolves to an obvious "Hellraiser" ripoff.  In an attempt to escape the workers trying to hunt them down, the students unleash all the monsters in an amazing scene of gory mayhem.

The students finally learn that the rite is actually a sacrifice to appease the old gods, who will destroy all of humanity if the ritual fails.  When she is put in a position to complete the rite (i.e. kill the Fool), the Virgin eventually declines, and she and her friend share some pot as the old gods come forth to finish off humanity.  I sure wish this last bit had been given some more time on film.  I wanted to see more of the old gods than just a giant hand.  Still, it all comes together fantastically, and the scenes with all the monsters munching through the workers is worth many Halloween viewings.

Image Credits:  Evil Dead Lego scene https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Will_you_be_ready..._(4786369715).jpg  https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/abraham_lincoln_vs_zombies  https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/evil_dead_2_dead_by_dawn/pictures/#&gid=1&pid=n-537393  Cabin in the woods, movie and from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_cabin_in_the_woods/pictures/

Friday, October 13, 2017

Halloween Movies of Choice: Movies 10-12

Munch's 1895 painting "The Vampire"
I'm behind again, but actually I'm thinking this three-movies-to-a-post thing is working out well, so I'm just going to go with it.  Besides, this way I can continue to do posts with all three movies around a theme.  So now it's time to focus on my favorite sort of paranormal-type horror creature, the vampire!

I tend to prefer my vampires to be seen for what they are - blood-sucking demons of the night.  That does not mean they can't be sympathetic, even romantic.  But the "reality" needs to be there in some fashion for me to take interest.  It'll be no surprise then that Twilight does not make my Halloween list.  But neither does Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992).  That's a gorgeous picture, but for some reason that movie just does not work for me.  I'm not drawn to that Dracula, who is so over the top he's campy.  The movie isn't bad enough to be so-bad-it's-good, and there are too many other actually intentionally campy vampire flicks to watch instead, if that's what you are looking for (like the already listed What We Do in the Shadows).  It was really tough, but after much consideration, I picked the following three vampire movies that I think cover a lot of ground for good Halloween-vampire-viewing.

Once again, SPOILERS abound herein, so watch first and read later.

10.  Nosferatu (1922)

There are a lot of old vampire movies, but this one is certainly the iconic vampire-as-malevolent-demon, whose influence is felt in every subsequent treatment of the subject.  The film itself, of course, is amazing for any number of reasons, like the use of light and shadow.  It is basically the story of Dracula, with a few adjustments.

When our hero Hutter first travels to the Count Orlok's lands, he is naive and jolly, thinking always of his wife and the coin he's going to make with this major sale.  Watching him come to terms with what is really happening in the castle is excellent horror.  After the sale, the vampire has himself, a lot of dirt, and hundreds of rats all boxed up and shipped off to his new home.  The scenes on the ship are the most disturbing, with sailors dropping off one by one, and no chance for any escape.  The rats as plague symbols are a nice touch, and the townspeople do believe that the plague is upon them.  People keep dying, and almost no one knows who is truly to blame.  In the end, well, it is up to the heroine Ellen to make the ultimate sacrifice to rid the world of this evil.

It's is a fine Halloween movie, and might really be the way to start off the season, depending our your tastes.  I have it here holding the place for the old, classic terrors of the genre.

11.  Fright Night (1985)

I have mentioned before my love of 80's horror.  In that category, I don't think it gets any better than Fright Night.  There are vampires, good performances, comic elements, and a nice, creepy buildup to a scary and satisfying finish.  You might say, well, isn't that the same for Lost Boys, too?  Well, I had to make a choice for my 80's vampire category, and unlike Charley in Fright Night, the character of Michael simply has no charisma.  The Lost Boys soundtrack is great, but it can't make you care for the characters if they just don't otherwise appeal.

You get far more personally invested in the characters of Fright Night.  Good-natured Charley, his strange friend "Evil," and his girl-next-door love interest Amy are all pretty stereotypical, and yet each is played to sincere perfection.  The most compelling character, however, is the washed-up, horror-host-has-been of Peter Vincent.  It is really Peter's journey of finding his faith in himself, and in his own strength, that makes the film so engaging.  Add in vampire Jerry, who is both unremittingly evil and yet shows momentary glimpses of the human he once was (like when Jerry tells Charley that Jerry is going to give him a choice to keep quiet, and implies that Jerry himself had had the choice to become a vampire made for him.)

I think the film makes for a perfect Halloweeny offering.  I have Fright Night here holding the place for the "modern" vampire movie, which includes a bit of camp and comedy along with solid scares, and a good-guys triumph kind of ending.

12.  Let Me In (2010)

I thought hard about what movie I wanted to be my sort of "post-modern" cerebral vampire flick.  There were a few contenders (say like Only Lovers Left Alive), but I wanted to pick something I thought might stand up to repeat Halloween viewings, and at the same time highlight the complex but ultimately nasty nature of vampires.  Let Me In contains so very much of interest to unpack.  I think the most telling aspect of the film is viewed through the trope of the "vampire henchman."  It is through this lens that we understand Abby's deep brutality, and the depths of her feral nature.

The idea of a vampire and their loyal followers is well worn, starting with Dracula's follower Renfield.  For Nosferatu there was Knock.  For Jerry there was Billy Cole.  For Abby in Let Me In, there is Thomas, a man who by day poses as her father, but by night kills people and brings their blood back to Abby.

As Thomas methodically goes through the motions of killing and collecting blood, he shows little emotion other than weariness.  He admits to Abby that he is getting careless, perhaps on purpose, because part of him wants to be caught.  It becomes clear that he does this work only because he has deep feelings for Abby, to the point that when he does get caught, he burns his face off with acid so the police cannot use him as a trail back to her.  His last act is to offer her his blood.  Abby takes the injured man up on the offer, allowing him to suffer enough blood loss that he tumbles unconscious from a window and dies.

Enter the neighbor boy Owen.  Isolated and bullied, he is highly vulnerable and easy to manipulate.  Abby appears to be genuinely fond of Owen, but more, she desperately needs him.  Old photos show Abby with a young Thomas, and the implications are that she groomed him from childhood to be her helper.  Behaviors repeat in this movie (like bullies creating more bullies) letting the viewer know that this "creating a henchman" is another repeating pattern.  By plan or by mere circumstance, she slowly enures Owen to the sight of blood and violence, to the point of him allowing her to kill someone right in front of him.  This culminates when she saves Owen from bullies (who are all tweens or teens themselves) by tearing them into literal pieces, and Owen smiles.  When he and Abby run away together at the end of the film, the viewer knows with dread certainty that this once sensitive boy is doomed to Thomas's future of lies, deception, and murder.

This movie isn't scary, it is instead utterly horrific.  While I'm still not sure it is exactly Halloweeny as I usually define these things, it is the most unique and effective film I've seen for expressing the terror that is the vampire, and thus finds it's place on this list. 

Image Credits:  The Vampire by Edvard Munch, public domain , from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edvard_Munch_-_Vampire_(1895)_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg  Nosferatu https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/nosferatu  Fright night , my movie and from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1007910_fright_night/pictures#&gid=1&pid=n-229564  Let Me In my movie and from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/let_me_in/pictures/#&gid=1&pid=n-91546

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

HallowRead - Skeleton Key Swag!

HallowRead is coming up fast! As you may recall from last year, this is the mini-con in Ellicott City, Maryland (October 20-21) celebrating all things horrorly and writerly. I'll be presenting a horror poetry workshop on Friday the 20th and and doing some spooky reading Saturday. Check out the events here!

One of the great perks you'll get for your attendance is a bag of swag from all sorts of writers. Last year my bag contained a book chapter, a pair of earrings, candy, promotions, coupons, and lots of ideas for where to find new reading by local writers.

I loved looking through my swag bag so much last year, I decided this year I'd contribute to it! As a beaded jewelry maker already, I thought I'd use those skills - and then came up with a great idea for a Skeleton Key. It's a silver key that is also a bottle opener, paired with a nicely creepy skull charm. I decided I'd add a card explaining what it is all for, and that has the URL to my website. Of course given last year I thought I'd be making 50 at the most. I didn't realize that the numbers expected were bigger this year, and I'd need to make 150 of the things!

So off I went, figuring out what I wanted my swag to look like, and then purchasing stock. I had to find stock on Amazon as well as from beaded jewelry dealers. I also had to take a trip to the local Michaels to get a few items as well. Not to mention I needed to print out appropriate cards, which I had done online. I didn't want to just use my business card, I wanted something that also included a little explanation of the key - that it was for unlocking both creativity and bottles :)

I got all the stock together back in September, and designed a working case that I could carry all the stuff around in, and work on whenever I had a moment. The basic charm was what I put together first, and it included silver tone metal pins, beads, and spacers, a nicely glinting crystal red bead, and then the final carved white howlite skull. A skull charm made here or there added up, along with a few marathon runs of 20 or 30 at a time. Eventually I had a pile of glittering skullys!

At that point I had to put 150 skully charms on key rings, along with each skeleton key. This took awhile, and I was worried at one point because I ran into a few deformed keys. I thought I wouldn't have enough. Fortunately the vendor had included extra keys at the start, and so it came out to exactly the number I needed.

The last step was getting the cards, punching holes in 150 of them, cutting string for 150 of them, and tying them to the 150 key rings. My hand was sore from the hole punch, but I did that all in one evening, and then immediately boxed them up.

And off they go today in the mail to eventually wind up in your swag bag. Hope you like them! See you at HallowRead!

Image Credits: HallowRead from Hallowread, and all others are my pix!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Halloween Movies of Choice: Movies 7-9

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
The trope of the
woman of heartless beauty.
Well here we come to my last catch-up post.  This one will finally put me back on track for posting about Halloween movies all this month, so onward!  We started off in the first post with three of my favorite films to ring in the Halloween season.  In the second post we looked at some dark-ish fantasy films that also fit the Halloween bill. 

Now it's time to consider a bit of creepy witchcraft by those who could be called "La Belle Dame sans Merci."  Featured in this trope is a outwardly beautiful woman who uses her charms to ensnare the innocent, with paranormal powers often part of her abilities.  It can be a tired, misogynistic trope if handled poorly.  But here are three films with this general theme that work well for me for Halloween.

Note again - SPOILERS all over the place.

7.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

I thought about this one for a long time, wondering if I should put it on my list here.  I've always thought of this film as pretty dark fare, but wasn't sure others would consider it dark enough, what with all the chirping birds and such.  But I did want to include something that hearkened back to the "Grimm" fairy tales of the past, which are often so perfectly Halloweeny.  I also wanted to include a nod to both the great animation and compelling villains that Disney (at its best) can produce.  Snow White won out over other possibilities due to the sheer creepy nature of the Queen, and the vile things she does to ensure she will always be the fairest of them all.

Consider first that the Queen is supposed to be the step-mother taking care of the young princess.  Instead the Queen is jealous of her and has her work as a slave in the castle.  The Queen is indeed so evil that when her mirror informs her that Snow White has become the fairest, she tells her royal huntsman to murder Snow White and have her heart brought back in a box as proof.  When she finds out that the huntsman actually let Snow White go, the Queen retreats to her dungeon, rifles through her spells, and finds a potion called the "Sleeping Death."  She laughs when she realizes this will mean Snow White will be buried alive.  The Queen is so scary even her pet raven is afraid.  This dungeon sequence is so perfectly Halloweeny, with the apple forming a deathly skull head as it is being infused with poison.

In true "Belle Dame" fashion, she lures Snow White into taking a bite of the apple by promising her all sorts of things, like wonderful apple pies and wishes that come true.  The dwarfs arrive too late for Snow White, of course, but do manage to chase the Queen into a frightening storm.  At the top of a cliff she tries to crush the dwarfs under a huge rock, but instead falls to her own death, with leering vultures circling down after her.

So yes, this movie is filled with lighthearted songs and frolicking animals and happy dwarfs.  But the Queen is really so malevolent that she steals the show.  This along with the wonderfully dark animated scenes in the dungeon and the storm make this a key Halloween favorite for me.

8.  Sleepy Hollow (1999)

This is one of my most beloved Halloween movies.  With its foggy scenes, bent trees, flickering candles, magic, witches, and rampant unexplained head-choppings, it fits perfectly into the season.  So go watch it now so I can get on with my spoilers, here.  Righto.

Now that you've seen it you know why I have it in this "Belle Dame" category.  One might at first think this film is going to be centered on the headless horseman himself - that the horseman is the ultimate villain that needs to be defeated.  But it isn't so.  The undead Hessian is in fact merely the murder tool of the real villain.

This movie is driven in part by ideas surrounding witchcraft.  We meet no less than four women practicing the art in some fashion.  As a scientist, Ichabod first rejects the ideas of supernatural powers.  But after confronting the horseman, and being lead to the cave of a powerful witch, he realizes such things do indeed exist.  He begins to recall lost, traumatic memories of his mother, whom he eventually remembers was killed by her own husband in gruesome fashion for practicing white magic.  When Ichabod finally figures out who is responsible for the murders, it is because he uses both his scientific skill and his growing understanding of the motives behind light and dark witchcraft.  And yes, it is the "Belle Dame" again.  A beautiful but vengeful woman bent on luring all her enemies, innocent and otherwise, to their doom.

Ichabod comes to terms with his painful childhood memories through his realization that witchcraft can be a good and gentle art, and that his mother was an innocent "child of the Earth."  And of course he wins the day by sending both the headless horseman and his murdering mistress back to hell.

9.  Coraline (2009)

Another stop-motion animated treat, I love this movie almost as much as Corpse Bride.  Coraline is a fantastic, original story with a bizarre plot.  At first it's a bit hard to follow.  What with all the colorful side characters, one doesn't really know where the eventual threat will come from.  But the movie gels nicely in the middle, as we meet the "other mother" who will happily provide for Coraline's every wish and need.  She has buttons for eyes, which is both very spooky and a dead giveaway that something isn't right, here.

It does not seem very Halloweeny at first, just disturbing and strange.  But as  Coraline spends time with her "other family" she starts to feel more and more uneasy.  Then her "other mother" insists that if Coraline wants to stay in this little paradise, she has to sew buttons over her eyes.  She is even offered a box with two buttons, a needle, and thread, which just makes me cringe.  When Coraline balks at this horrific request, she is thrown into a closet where she meets the ghosts of three children who caved into the "beldame's" request, and subsequently had their life forces sucked dry by the creature.  Now we are definitely into good Halloween territory, as Coraline has to fight to save herself, the souls of the ghost children, and her trapped parents from this evil entity.  She gets some very Halloweeny help from a black cat, and through courage and wit, she eventually wins the day.

The film is appealing for so many reasons, not the least for the incredible color and lighting giving it a thoroughly creepy look and feel.  Coraline is a solid character, with enough childlike mannerisms to make her believable as a young person, but also with a good helping of brains and strength.  The story is unique.  And in the end, the "beldame" is so completely evil, wicked, and scary, that this can't help but be ideal Halloween viewing.

Image Credits:  John William Waterhouse "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=belle+dame+sans+merci&title=Special:Search&go=Go&searchToken=1af7rf3no86yg0yxiqw2ndywp#/media/File:John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893).jpg Snow White https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1048445_snow_white_and_the_seven_dwarfs/pictures vultures, http://disneyvillains.wikia.com/wiki/Vultures_(Snow_White_and_the_Seven_Dwarfs)  Sleepy hollow, my movie and pix from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/sleepy_hollow and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleepy_Hollow_(film)  Coraline, my movie and from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/coraline/pictures/#&gid=1&pid=h-48235   

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Halloween Movies of Choice: Movies 4-6

A nice, scary Jack-o-lantern.
He menacingly approves of
my movie selections.
And on we go with another catch-up post about my Halloween movies of choice!  I've mentioned that my Halloween list is not pure horror or straight scares.  I like those, and a few are included later in my list, but mostly what I want is something that "feels Halloweeny."  Which of course is entirely subjective. 

In this post we'll find movies that others would consider fantasy rather than anything like horror.  This is definitely true, but as for Halloween fun, they are high on my list, with monsters, skeletons, incantations, witches, curses, werewolves, and other dark delights.

As noted before, SPOILERS are to be found herein!

4.  The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Most people think of this film as light fluff these days, but I just couldn't pass up this old classic.  The chills start with the nasty neighbor who shows up at the door with an order that allows her to actually seize a poor young girl's dog and take him away to be destroyed.  Then we are treated to a view of a tornado headed our way, and it looks way, way too realistic.  Once in Oz, we find feet sticking out from under the house, and an enraged and utterly iconic Wicked Witch of the West swearing revenge.

On the advice of another strange person, also calling herself a witch, the girl is sent off into the countryside alone to seek help.  She and her found pals walk terrified through a dark forest, and eventually end up in an audience with a menacing Wizard.  Wanting to get Dorothy to leave him alone for good, The Wizard (who is supposed to be a good guy in the end, ahem) sends the young girl off to her probable doom in a witch's castle.  Then the creepy flying monkeys kidnap Dorothy, who finds herself trapped in a room with an hourglass that is pouring out the last moments of her life.  It's pretty nasty, especially since you have no idea what's going to happen when time runs out.  The witch's eventual demise is rather grim, too.  So for all its happy dancing and singing bits, The Wizard of Oz is still my kind of Halloween fare.

5.  Pirates of the Caribbean:  The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

So I'll admit that a big part of the appeal with this film is having ridden the "Pirates of the Caribbean" park ride at Disney as a child.  It was both exciting and scary to get transported into the seamy world of the pirates - to see the skeletons that would never be found, and the buried treasure that would never be claimed.  The battle of the ships in the water was overwhelming in an age before special effects became commonplace.  The ending sequence where the pirates are imprisoned and the whole town seems to be burning down is thrilling and terrifying in turns.  It made an indelible mark on me, and from that time pirates were filed in the "Halloween" part of my brain, along with all the other creepy and scary stuff of that season. 

Enter in the first of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie series many years later.  Although I find the franchise as a whole to be a little tedious, this film is still a fun and fearful romp.  As Halloweeny as pirates might be to me, this movie wouldn't make my list if it were just swashbucklers chasing one another over the high seas.  However, this movie features a most paranormal and evil curse plaguing one of the pirate crews, turning them into undead skeletons.  There is enough tension as well as excitement in the film to keep a pretty good pace, although the movie really is too long.  The female lead, while occasionally the brunt of typical treatment, gets to show some spine and courage of her own.  I'm not sure about Depp's quirky approach to his character, but overall it's a creepy ride through pirate infested waters.  Thus, the movie holds the pirate place on my Halloween movie list.  

6.  Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

I wanted to include one of the Harry Potter films on my list, since I find them all to be pretty decent Halloween fare.  They have magic, mayhem, and monsters, of course.  And as the movies progress the constant dread about He Who Shall Not Be Named keeps getting more and more urgent.  All this is fine fodder for a Halloween flick.  I didn't want to just call out the whole series, that seemed lazy.  Instead I wanted to think of which of the movies seemed the most Halloweeny to me.  The Prisoner of Azkaban fills that slot, and I think it might be my favorite of the whole series.

Some of the elements that make this more Halloween-appropriate to me include the fact that the main actors are older, but still kids.  They are old enough to increase the complexity of the story, but still young enough to help the audience recall the feeling of scary childhood adventures.  This movie includes a terrifying black hound, evil soul-sucking demons, a wild werewolf, a prognosticating teacher, a talking shrunken head, and the usual dark potion making.  Not to mention the grim execution of an innocent hippogriff.  There's also a nice big pile of pumpkins ... 

Cold and brooding, the tone of the film is darker than the first two, with a growing sense of something wicked always brewing.  We find out that Ron's simple rat is instead a transformed traitor, who is responsible for the death of Harry's parents.  That really creeps me out, knowing that rat has been hanging out with Ron's family for years.  This is also the film where you really learn about how terribly nasty the Azkaban prison is, and start to gain more insight into how brutal and actually inhumane the world of magic can really be.  It's all fine Halloweeny stuff. 

Image Credits:  Jack-o-lantern https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lit_Jack-o%27-lantern_glowing_menacingly.jpg via CC 2.0 Witch and Dorothy https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_wizard_of_oz_1939/pictures/ Pirates photos, Mine and from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lit_Jack-o%27-lantern_glowing_menacingly.jpg  Potter, mine and from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/harry_potter_and_the_prisoner_of_azkaban

Halloween Movies of Choice: Movies 1-3

It's Halloween movie time!!
Well it had been my plan to do a post a day in October about my favorite movies for this time of year.  But I'm running late, so I'm going to do a catch-up post or three, starting now.

For whatever reason each of the following films strikes a chord with me that puts me in the Halloween mood.  Often it isn't raw scares or deep terror that appeal to me this time of year.  Rather I'm drawn to that uncomfortable juxtaposition of humor and horror.  I'll tell you what makes good watching (and maybe what doesn't) as far as my personal taste, and why.  Okay let's dive in!

NOTE - Thar be SPOILERS ahead, matey.

1.  What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

The "first movie to watch to get into the Halloween spirit" slot has, for me, been taken over by What We Do in the Shadows (2015).  I adore good vampire movies in general, and this one is nearly perfect.  It's a fantastic little mock-u-mentary about four vampires trying to deal with modern life, or death, as it were. 

The movie is gory, funny, surprising, and occasionally appalling (like when we witness a vampire kill a happy young woman, and somehow the scene is played for laughs as blood spews everywhere.)  The scenes showing the vampires' interactions with the local werewolf community are some of my favorites.  The constant references to a rival vampire known as "The Beast" are always accompanied by flashes to old-time pictures of monsters overlain with a haunting musical cue.  It lets you know you will be meeting "The Beast" sometime soon ... The movie offers that perfect feeling of creepy fun that makes me think of Halloween, and so here it is in my "first to watch in October" position. 
2.  Werewolf (as shredded by MST3K in 1998) and not The Howling 

It seems only fair to watch a werewolf flick next, as vampires and werewolves are so often cast in conflict with one another.  I had a vague memory that The Howling (1981), from deep in my youth, was a reasonably fun romp.  So I rewatched it.  Well, it is actually boring.  There are no real scares, because the characters do not draw us in.  One simply doesn't care what happens to them. 

At the worst, the movie just gets those werewolf-like hackles up over the treatment of women.  It's a long slog through watching the main character get attacked, nearly shot, harassed, cheated on by her husband, and then struck in the face by said husband.  Then she gets turned into a werewolf that looks like a teddy bear.  There is nothing here to keep the viewer engaged, and too much taking you out of the "story" such as it is.  It takes about 8 minutes in one scene just to watch someone transform.  Yawn.  Do not bother with this movie.  It may bring back a bit of nostalgia for some of those early 80's horror flicks (which I generally love), but there are no good Halloween feels here.

Instead, watch the MST3K version (1998) of Werewolf (1996)!  Now, you may say that Werewolf is also a bad movie, so what's the difference?  This is true.  Werewolf is painfully bad, and does contain useless scenes where the female character gets harassed.  It has terrible "special effects" if you can use that term here, and a myriad of other filming problems.  But as recompense, you can listen to the MST3K guys tear the movie apart.  This is a flick that has some bizarre charm - including an Estevez brother in an inexplicable role (where he just sort of stares around open-mouthed a lot), people getting turned into werewolves by an ancient skeleton, and some absolutely hysterical setups (like a werewolf driving a car.) 

Neither Werewolf nor The Howling work as movies.  But good moments are to be had by watching the unexpectedly entertaining Werewolf, as the MST3K crew makes sure you don't miss one laughable moment.

3.  Corpse Bride (2005)

I am a huge fan of stop-motion animation (and animation in general), so it's not surprising I have such films on my Halloween list.  I'm also a fan of well-done musicals.  Corpse Bride is one of my absolute favorites, flawlessly combining animation and song.  The animation is dazzling, and the color contrasts between the worlds of the living and the dead are used to great effect.  I'm not a fan of Bonham-Carter's singing voice, but it works just fine here.  And otherwise her voice acting gives the titular bride Emily a deep charm and pathos.  The rest of the musical numbers are entertaining and either help establish character motivations or move the plot forward.  Only the "Remains of the Day" tune goes on a bit too long for me. 

The drab world of the living is almost portrayed as a place you'd want to leave as soon as possible.  Restrictions and expectations abound as the inhabitants negotiate their convoluted class structure rules.  But the "upstairs" world is still given a feeling of hope through symbols like the blue "butterfly" as well as the sweetness of the lead character's betrothed, Victoria.  Victor and Victoria quickly fall in love, and while Victor's bumbling gets a little repetitive, he and Victoria both have their moments of courage that have you rooting for them. 

The underworld by contrast is painted as a constant party, filled with laughter and games played by its slowly decaying inhabitants.  "Downstairs" is an egalitarian world where death has made equals of all.  There are skeletons, spiders, maggots, dark magic, and poisonous brews to give it a nice macabre feeling.  In spite of all this, the underworld has a sense of unfinished business.  Like people would move on to whatever comes next if they could.  Emily herself cannot find peace until she comes to terms with all she lost in life.

The movie is fun, macabre, creepy, and entirely engaging.  But really I'm just in love with the puppet Emily.  I had the chance to see her "in real life" at a touring exhibition of Burton's work.  She is actually quite stunning.  The juxtaposition of her stellar beauty against her gruesome decay (causing constant cognitive dissonance) is a big part of what makes this movie a Halloween favorite for me.

Image Credits:  Movie - https://pixabay.com/en/film-cinema-video-camera-1328405/  via CC 3.0.  What we Do in the Shadows - I own this one.  Werewolf movie shots from http://mst3k.wikia.com/wiki/MST3K_904_-_Werewolf via CC 3.0.  Corpse Bride, my own and from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/corpse_bride/pictures/#&gid=1&pid=h-9901 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Changing Ableist Language and Tropes in the Horror Genre

Monsters such as the Shoggoth can unhinge the minds
of viewers.  What is the central horror in such a trope?
Is the trope inherently ableist?  How can the
trope be re-imagined to support understanding of
disability, rather than promote misconceptions?
For some time now I've been reconsidering the use of certain words - a subset of which center around labels for mental illness such as "crazy."  I am a person with mental illness/disability and am finding more and more that such words are at best lazy and at worst ableist.  Of course these words have been problematic for years.  I think one reason I'm late to this particular party, (especially as someone who has MI) is that I've developed a fondness for some of these words, if used in specific ways.

For example, as a research scientist who studies the Moon, I've sometimes self-labeled as a "lunatic" - a fanatic about the moon.  I learned this term from others in the field who also use describe themselves this way.  Another expression I've used for myself is "mad" scientist.  As a scientist who writes speculative poetry and fiction, this seemed like a very appropriate (and fun) descriptor. 

Certainly within the world of horror, tropes like the "mad" scientist are a issue.  Horror has a longstanding relationship with "madness," from monsters whose very visage causes "insanity," to haunted asylums, to the chainsaw-wielding "crazy" person.  I think these tropes can promote ableism and/or ableist rhetoric, depending on how they are approached.  Again this is not a new idea.  There are a variety of opinions about the many “madness” tropes in horror - positive, negative, and everything in between.

One positive example comes from the disability advocacy site “Cracked Mirror in Shallot” where the author says “ … the narrative of the haunted asylum allows us to reveal and name rightly the horror of abuse within societal structures.”  The author states, “So when a horror movie lays bare the reality of institutions and being disabled in those environments, I both shiver at the treatment and thrill that the polite skirting that normally hides what could be my reality is lifted.”

But at Everyday Feminism author Kris Nelson speaks of concerns that these horror tropes are inherently ableist, saying “… the scare tropes used in these types of horror movies don’t end when the credit [sic] start rolling," and "These depictions of mental hospitals and the patients within them contribute to the very real, very scary treatment of mentally disabled and neurodivergent people today.”  The author exhorts horror buffs to “become aware when the media you consume desensitizes you to the abuse of people like myself.”

So is there a way to reclaim some of these problematic horror tropes - to morph them in ways that make them (1) expand ideas of personhood and (2) work as effective horror?

In the Disability Studies Quarterly, author Melinda Hall says in her paper Horrible Heroes:  Liberating Alternative Visions of Disability in Horror, "I claim that horror, despite its frequent abuse of disability, has significant potential to structure alternative encounters with and visions of disability. These alternative encounters can build inroads to political inclusion by fostering the acceptance of vulnerability and pushing for the rejection of exclusive social norms and ableism by highlighting them as horrific."

Hall uses specific examples to support her ideas including the work of Tim Burton, of whom she says, "Ultimately, Burton brings forward portraits of difference in order to accept, not reject, them, thus subverting the basic thrust of horror fiction."  She goes on to say that the only thing in these stories that really end up horrifying the viewer is "the treatment of outsiders by an intolerant social context."

I wonder that this has been one of the reasons I have always been partial to Burton’s vision - this sense of the strange one as the protagonist, and how it recasts what we choose to see or call “strange.”

So what are the implications for the speculative writer who enjoys horror?  One idea I have is that I'm going to be more clear in the future about the motivation for dastardly deeds - they will be the result of evil, not "insanity."  Otherwise, that just plays into the misconception that people with MI are perpetrators of crime, when in fact it is far more likely they will end up the victims of crime.

To emphasize evil (and to cleverly wrap around to the beginning of this post) I'm going to avoid lazy, harmful phrases like "the villain was crazy." Instead I'm going to use words like "the villain was vile, disgusting, unworthy, contemptible, nefarious, nasty, tyrannical, wretched, corrupt, wicked, depraved, sinister, diabolical, and fiendish."  His deeds will not be "insane" instead they will be "unpredictable, irrational, atrocious, obscene, ruinous, destructive, outrageous, pernicious, malign, odious, shocking, violent and foul." 

I'm also going to be more proactive about seeing how tropes can be turned inside-out to create something terrifying that yet carries the truth of the experience of mental illness/disability.  I do think we can have some good, fun, ghastly horror that improves the world while creeping us out.  It will take originality and cleverness, which I think will improve the genre all around.

But I think for a while yet, um ... I'm still going to think of myself as a "mad" scientist ...

Image Credit:  Shoggoth CC 3.0 Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Being a Good Literary Citizen - Part One - Motivations

"Being a Good Literary Citizen" is a favorite subject of mine, because I am a collaborator-type who enjoys finding ways for everyone to win.  I truly believe in the positive power of community, and I am both excited and humbled to be a part something as awesome as fiction and poetry writing (and writers.)  I've heard the topic of good literary citizenship come up a lot recently, and thought I'd post a few ramblings here about the subject.

I'm going to start with an anecdote of something that happened to me.  A writer on twitter asked for help with a research topic.  It was right up my alley as a planetary scientist, so I sent them an email with a bunch of ideas.  This person never responded back to me.  A few years later I'm reading an anthology, and I find a story from this writer with ideas right out of my email.

I do not think this writer acted as a good literary citizen.  Because I never received a response, or even a "hey, that story got published," I feel like I'm nothing more to this person than a resource to be tapped.  They got what they wanted from me and then forgot about me.  I do not feel like a fellow writer and colleague.  I'm certainly not in the mood to read any more of this person's work, and have stopped following them on social media.

Whenever something like this happens to me, or I hear about something similar happening to another writer, I rededicate myself to being a good literary citizen.  I want to be the sort of person who makes authentic contact with people, who gives thanks and credit, and who looks for ways to be a part of something bigger.  I want to be an empathetic, kind, inclusive and caring person who owns up to mistakes and who is always striving to learn and improve.  It goes beyond being a citizen, really, and becomes a sharing of person-hood.

Next post - I'm going to do a practical list of suggestions and ideas for being a good literary citizen.  If you have some thoughts of your own, write them here, and I'll include them in the list!

Image Credit: Hearthands  Public Domain Wikimedia commons

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Most Marvelous Muse

This year's Muse and the Marketplace conference, hosted by Boston's Grub Street, has come to an end.  I am tired but happy, and currently shuffling through my notes to see what might be fun and useful to post here on the blog.  I went to several great sessions and had a most encouraging interview with an agent.  Even though I was pretty much solo for the event, I got to hang out with some new friends, and met a lot of interesting people.  I'm following a lot of them on Twitter now, and it's a lot of fun to get more like-minded writers into my feed.

As for pluses for Muse, there are lots.  Most of the sessions I went to were presented by engaging and knowledgeable speakers.  I enjoyed the fact that there were few panels. (You know my thoughts on panels as I've posted about them before.)  All of these speakers were well prepared, and most had handouts so you didn't have to be taking notes like wild the whole time.  I was unable to attend the social events because of personal conflicts, but it looked like there were many of them, and they seemed quite popular given how attendees spoke about them afterwards.  The agent/editor portion of the event was organized and run well.

My gripes are pretty minor, generally speaking.  One is that some of the rooms were long and skinny, meaning that it was hard to get seated and easy to get lost in the back.  And, well, this conference isn't cheap, since it includes a hot buffet breakfast for two days, as well as other offerings.  In addition, there wasn't much for people interested specifically in speculative fiction, nor were there any poetry-related sessions that I spotted.  But no conference can be all things to all people. (As for genre, I'm hoping to hit Capclave later in the year.)

I think it is a very good conference for writers overall, if one can afford the price tag.  And I'd certainly recommend it over other, larger, writer's conferences that are all panels.  This conference gave me more of a feeling of community than others I've been to, and I'm hoping to go back again whenever my schedule permits.