Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Halloween Movies of Choice 2020: Movies 8 to 10 - Rewatching Early Stephen King

Stephen King's massive influence on horror can't be argued.  Modern horror is in many ways "King's Monster."  King dug up the pieces of the genre, stitched them together, added lightning, and a gloriously gruesome entity emerged.  Given this, it's always baffled me that I was never a big fan of King's works.  I'm a writer and aficionado of all sorts of strange stuff, so why is it that most of King's writings and their adaptations never struck a cord with me?  I decided I'd take my October 2020 movie party to re-watch a few of his early flicks, and consider my impressions more deeply.

Okay, I'm not utterly without certain King favorites.  King has written a gigantic number of novels and stories, and some of these I have definitely come to like such as those that have seeped into movies via anthologies (Creepshow 2), or via other genres than direct horror (Stand By Me, Danse Macabre.)  Creepshow 2 in particular has King starring in a solo performance that I have always loved.  I'll post about that some other day ...

So let's take a look at three of these early King-novels-as-movie adaptations: The Shining (which I remember not liking at all,) Salem's Lot (which I remember liking a little,) and The Dead Zone (which was the only King movie of the time that I remember liking a whole lot).  Now that I've just re-watched them, maybe insight shall be gained.

SPOILERS OF ALL KINDS!  Total SPOILAGE!  But seriously, I think anyone interested in this post is gonna be pretty familiar with these already.

Movie 8 - The Shining 1980

This is of course the story of a caretaker, his spouse, and his son who winter over alone at a resort.  Wendy hopes for the family to reconnect, while Jack hopes to find writing inspiration.  We have no idea what Danny wants.  The one sentence plot is that Jack is possessed by evil spirits from the house, tries to kill his family, and ends up freezing to death in the hedge maze outside as his wife and child flee to safety. 

Things I liked:  Upon re-watching, I enjoyed the filming itself much more.  The long shots, camera angles, colors, and lighting are all highly effective, making the inside of the resort feel more like a hospital than a plush hotel.  Duvall is believable as a woman who is unable to leave her abusive husband, exhibiting well-known behaviors such as defending him in conversation by saying his breaking his son's arm was accidental.

The character of Dick, who also has the Shine, is particularly likeable as the only person who attempts to actually bond with Danny.  Last, a ragingly possessed Nicholson chasing you with an axe is certainly going to cause alarm.

Things I didn't like:  Why cast Jack Nicholson in this role?  The actor had already developed a reputation for playing twitchy characters (as in the 1970 Five Easy Pieces famous 'chicken salad sandwich scene' and the entire movie of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.)  We are also told early on that Jack is an alcoholic, ten months sober, who is prone to outbursts of temper and who had battered both his wife and son.  Listening to him whine to the bartender is almost painfully pathetic.  Unlike in King's novel, the movie-Jack does not have a late moment of understanding and regret; he is wholly unsympathetic.  One look at Nicholson and the question isn't "will" he try to kill you, but "when."

There is absolutely no chemistry in this family.  They all act like complete strangers to one another.  Danny has no personality, and the addition of the invisible friend "Tony" does not serve any purpose.  "Redrum" spoken over and over devolves into babble, and writing a word backwards to be seen in a mirror is a old prank predating this movie.  Duvall screams so often I wasn't even hearing it anymore.  Dick, the only interesting character, spends half the movie both realizing there is an problem and then getting back to the hotel, only to be killed immediately upon arrival.

Overall, this thing is an awesome-looking mess.  I can see why King didn't like it, as this is not the story he wrote.  Although I don't feel any connection between the people in book, either, and am not compelled by King's recurring theme of places being evil and attracting evil.  The movie has no ... charm maybe?  No cleverness?  Except for Nicholson's ad-libed "Here's Johnny" line, the movie takes itself too seriously, allowing for no shifts in tone that might enhance the viewers' sense of perspective on the story.

Movie 9 - Salem's Lot 1979

I love a vampire flick, and it was interesting to see how the TV mini-series of Salem's Lot worked with the old gothic tropes, as well as with Stoker's conception of Dracula.  This is of course the story of Ben who returns to his childhood hometown to write about a creepy house there, which unbeknownst to anyone now hides a vampire.  The townspeople are eventually converted into vampires, including Ben's girlfriend, before Ben and local teen Mark can stake Master Vampire Barlow through the heart and burn the whole place down.

What I liked:  Even now the vampire eyes are a very good effect.  Some of the townsfolk are sympathetic, and the girlfriend Susan is intelligent and self-possessed.  The floating vampire boys tapping on the windows are still a creepy sight.  Watching the people get picked off one by one is also chilling as they leave cars abandoned in the streets and tricycles overturned in their yards.  There is actual interpersonal chemistry between the school teacher Jason, Ben, and his girlfriend's father Bill (who seems relieved his daughter didn't pick a loser for a change.)

PLUS this film can claim one of my favorite scary scenes of all time - while Ben is driving a stake into Barlow's heart, his undead minions are slowly but surely crawling across the floor towards Matt, who is oblivious.  There are no jump scares and nothing hidden, it's all right in front of you and the tension is fantastic.

What I disliked:  Why did they put "Hutch" (who still looks and acts like a police detective) in a Jeep if he doesn't know how to close a Jeep door?  He tries to slam it in almost every scene, and once even goes back and slams it again.  It's some of the only humor in the film and it's clearly not intended.  I'm assuming Hutch kept forgetting this wasn't his and Starsky's beat-up Torino.

Susan, who is otherwise portrayed as intelligent, goes to the Marsden house for absolutely no reason when she's supposed to be getting her mother to safety.  She must have inherited this from her father, who for absolutely no reason walks upstairs without Hutch and of course gets waxed.  The pushing-four-hours of running time is filled with people driving places and going in and out of doors and setting up conversations.  I cut out almost 25 minutes just by making people walk fast.  

The music that plays over most of the "action" seems to have been composed by the ghost of Wagner.  And as usual for horror movies, there's too much pointless non-horror-related-violence; such as one dude who thinks it's okay to beat his wife for infidelity, and Hutch who physically throws Mark on the ground and into furniture whenever Mark doesn't do what Hutch says.  The choppy editing and continuity gaffs make the production appear almost B-movie level.

But overall, this is an interesting and occasionally even fun vampire flick with some trope-defining moments.  If you use a bit of fast forward you can avoid the slow spots and much of the irritating music, getting to the scenes with actual character interactions and some good vampire freaky-ness.  There is in fact a dash of charm to be found, as we feel some of the director's (and no doubt King's) affection for this dysfunctional small town and its increasingly undead populace.  We encounter good, bad, and a lot of in-between in the humans of this town, and it puts the utterly inhuman elements of vampiric evil in stark relief.

Movie 10 - The Dead Zone 1983

Johnny Smith wakes up from a five year coma and finds out his girlfriend has married, has a child, and that he now has developed psychic powers.  He saves some people from terrible fates, solves crimes, and eventually stops nuclear Armageddon by ending the prospects of a narcissistic presidential hopeful, although at the cost of his own (Johnny's) life.

What I liked:  This movie has aged well, and I love it as much as I ever have.  It conveys a constant, thrumming dread - the sense that something has been touched that is too intense for any human to bear for long, with consequences that cannot be predicted. The film contains complex and believable relationships, genuine warmth, nuanced characters, and some good performances.  

Christopher Walken is, as usual, fantastic in every way.  He carries this movie, totally selling how his experience changes him, his feelings of isolation, and his motivations for his choices.  Even Walken's physical performance is a standout, as over the course of the film he recovers his mobility even as he is slowly drained by his powers.  The way Johnny's visions are shown is not high-tech, but the sort of "flashback" mechanism works well.  By the end of the film we can feel Johnny's exhaustion as he tries to hang on to this world that has felt so alien to him since the moment he awoke.  Oh, and Martin Sheen is also a lot of fun as the smarmy candidate for senate - holding up a baby as a shield so he doesn't get shot.  The very bottom of the moral barrel.

What I didn't like:  I never liked the ending.  It is believable, but I feel that Johnny's journey is unfinished.  The vignettes in the movie give a smattering look at his powers, his choices, and the changes he undergoes, but I still feel that there was much more to explore with this premise, and especially with Walken's performance.  This leads me to how much I didn't like the doctor's idea that he shouldn't talk to his long lost mother because "it wasn't meant to be."  I find this fatalist attitude to be entirely self-defeating, and it undermines the subtlety of the premise.  I can understand him saying, "I can't open that door and be sure I'll survive.  It was hard to lose my mother, and I feel I can't take that emotional risk."  But saying "it's wasn't meant to be" is a real chicken-out move.  Should the nurse not have heeded Johnny's warning and left her daughter to die?  Is this a whole "monkey's paw" situation?  This gives the impression that Johnny's powers are simply evil, rather than a chaotic but creative force that can be used for good.

Overall, there is so much warmth, humanity, and yes, charm in this film that we can't help but like the characters and find ourselves rooting for (or against) them.  There is genuine laughter and humor, which works very well to sharpen the edge of the frightening, mysterious, and violent moments, giving them extra punch.

In conclusion of my lengthy post here, it seems pretty clear what I think is missing from some of these stories and films - humor to provide perspective, warmth to contrast the horror, and charm to allow us to engage emotionally with the people and their world.  I can see why it is I identify with the work of people like Tim Burton, who use more of these elements, rather than King, who is apt to give us something deeply horrific from page one and not let up.  Obviously most horror lovers want that sort of thing, since King is, well, the King of Horror.  But there are also folx like me whose appetites lie more towards the quirky, inky, ironic, and endearingly freakish realm of the genre.

Image Credits: King's pic from his amazon author page.  DVD covers for all three movies.  Other images still shots from movies or promo pix.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Halloween Movies of Choice 2020: Movies 4 to 7 - Vampires!

Vampire time!
It's October 13 and I've only posted reviews of three of the movies I've watched so far, so it's time for some catch up posts.  Let's dive in with the best possible subject: vampires!

For me, vampires are the pinnacle of gothic glory.  In my last series of posts in 2017, I reviewed the movies: What We Do in the Shadows (my current favorite to start Halloween season), Nosferatu, Fright Night (the old one), and Let Me In (American version).  These are solid vampire flicks, and well worth a watch depending on what you are seeking, such as dark humor, film noir, 80's creepy camp, or maybe something truly disturbing.  I have a massive backlog of vampire movies to watch, so I'm glad to have this excuse to do that and then wallow in their gory glory.

SPOILERS!  LOTS!  (No really)

4.    Let the Right One In - 2008

If you are looking for "I want to be deeply rattled by a vampire movie" then this will probably do the trick.

As I mentioned above, in my first series in 2017, I reviewed the American remake of this movie (Let Me In - 2010).  It was one of the most disturbing vampire movies I'd ever seen.  I decided to revisit the story through the lens of the original film.  The remake is basically the same movie, but there are enough differences that comparing them reveals more depth to this depraved tale.

Both of these movies deliver a wallop of vampire horror that will leave you reeling.  Certainly the movies ask the viewer, "What makes a monster?" both in terms of how people become monsters, and how we define that word.  In spite of the American version being more outwardly violent, this original film is more emotionally brutal and unforgiving, showing the hideous truth of vampirism with an unflinching gaze. 

Oskar is a twelve year old boy whose life is rife with neglect and abuse, particularly from constant bullying at school.  On one hand, he seems sensitive, mild, and good-natured.  On the other, we see evidence that the cycle of bullying is already in motion, as Oskar, who is obsessed stories of murders, acts out pretend revenge with a knife.  In the remake, the same boy (Owen) does not appear so antisocial.

The vampire child Eli has a generally androgynous aspect, but wears dresses and appears to everyone to be a human girl.  She is cold to her henchman Hakan, ordering him about as she fixates on her growing interest in Oskar.  The remake shows the vampire (Abby) to have more apparent compassion for her henchman Thomas, although we cannot know if some or all of this is feigned.  The remake has removed other creepy content including a hoard of cats attacking a newly made vampire, and that same vampire intentionally allowing themselves to be set on fire by sunlight.

So while the remake shows us a vampire slowly exploiting the vulnerability of an isolated boy, the original shows us a vampire encouraging and exploiting a boy's already extant antisocial behavior.  Either way, each film ends with the disturbing certainty that history has repeated itself, and the vampire has once again successfully ensnared a human to become their murdering henchman.  So don't be fooled by reviews describing this movie as "sweet" or "romantic" or other total nonsense.  Eli is a merciless killer who dismembers children.  No amount of potential affection (and it's never clear if there actually is any) that Eli has for Oskar can outweigh her leading him into lifelong bloody servitude.  Overall, I prefer this original to the remake.  It handles greater emotional brutality with more subtlety, and the actress playing Eli is simply sensational in the role.  Definitely a must see for vampire fans, especially those looking for something new under the "sun."

5.    Queen of the Damned - 2002

If you are looking for "I want a vampire movie with cool music that's not otherwise demanding" this one fills the bill.

In spite of my vampire addiction, I've never been an Anne Rice fan.  I tried several times to read some of the novels and stories in her vampire universe, but I've found them kind of boring.  The characters are all so unrelatable that I never cared what what happened to them.  Lestat, the main vampire of most of the stories, is particularly useless.  He is utterly unsympathetic, and as I tried to read the stories I kept hoping he'd get immolated at some point.  Then realized he was going to be a main, continuing character; I lost interest.

So why did I bother with "Queen of the Damned?"  The soundtrack.  I found the soundtrack years back and added a bunch of songs from it to my gritty Halloween playlist.  I finally decided I'd just watch this movie and see if it had any redeeming qualities in addition to the music.

Well, there are a few, but not enough.  Lestat continues to be a literal pain in the neck.  The actor portraying him does a great job, and has the voice, the look, and the arrogance down pat.  It's just that the character itself is a classic depiction of spoiled white royalty; he's a whiny, privileged, mopey baby in a man's body and ... yuck.  But even more of a pain is the bait-and-switch of the promotional images.  The promos show the "Queen of the Damned," a black woman vampire, who is front and center with Lestat behind her.  She looks awesome and very not your typical vampire and I hoped she'd give Lestat the what-for.

Nope.  Instead this movie is sort of about Lestat deciding that mortal life is precious from an I-can-destroy-humans-whenever-I-want-to-and-isn't-that-beautiful view.  It does not make him more palatable.  The glorious Queen only shows up near the end of the movie.  She's looking for Lestat to take him as her King; a kind of consort-slave-trophy to enjoy as she dominates humans and vampires alike.  The actress is terrifyingly perfect, lithe, and lethal.  At a glance you know this thing is not human and only sees you as furniture, at best.  Once you see her, you realize she's the only real vampire in the flick.  

Sadly, at the end she's ganged up on and destroyed by wishy-washy vampires who prefer the skulking-in-shadows lifestyle.  This scene is appalling from a social-justice/feminist perspective - as it is mostly white men and women (vampires) destroying a black woman (vampire.)  No.  Just no.  The apex of all vampiric power has quickened as female, black, confident, carnal - and of course white patriarchy is like "we can't have that, can we?" and down she goes.  Any real vampire would worship her.  Our take-away is that these vampires are still human enough to identify more with their prey than this glorious Queen of wretched evil.  Bah.

I still suggest the movie if only for the one scene where she literally tears the heart out of another vampire and eats it.  She does not look angry or happy as she kills him - that would be too human.  Instead, she's entertained, and perhaps mildly pleased with herself.  But neither he nor the twenty other vampires she kills in that scene are worth a second thought to her.  She does not, as they say, even break a sweat.  The other reason to watch is in fact the soundtrack, which is indeed quite fine.  Otherwise, this movie does not work as either camp, or dark humor, or real scares, or an exploration of mortality, or parody, or an examination of the nature of humanity, or really anything at all ...

6.    Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter - 2012

If you "want a campy, action-movie-style vampire flick with cool effects" then this is one to check out.

I had a great time watching this movie in spite of its many problems.  I'll start with what I liked.  The special effects are pretty good, and the vampires look totally gruesome.  The scenes of the Gettysburg battlefield aren't realistic, but are impressive anyway.  Having Lincoln as an action hero with a classic tragic backstory puts you right into the comic-book plot of the film.  The training montage is over-the-top axe-wielding fun.  There are all kinds of fantastic moments where the bad guys get pwned with improbable, cheer-inducing magnificence.  The women in the film such as Harriett Tubman and Mary Todd are shown as intelligent, bold, and resourceful.  The surprise ending to the climax is actually quite satisfying, and I think for once I won't spoil it.

There was stuff in the movie that was both good and bad, in the sense that having it there both added and detracted at the same time.  The movie posits what might happen if vampires lived in slavery-era America.  The vampires see slavery as a means to obtain lots of disposable people, and they create empires in the south filled with slaves and the vampires that feed off of them.  That is plausible given the setup, but very problematic because it tempts us to dismiss the great evils of slavery as a product of demons, rather than of very real people in the real world acting demonically.  The movie takes an appropriately ethical stance in that it is certainly anti-slavery, but by conflating the evils of vampirism with the evils of slavery, it serves to potentially diminish the contributions of people like Tubman.  I mean, I love a good parody, but this movie can't decide if it's campy, vamp-killing fun or a serious commentary on the blood-sucking nature of slavery.

This leads us to the problems.  First, as noted above, the tone is totally inconsistent.  Is this a farce or a pointed take on civil-war America?  To be both, which is possible, one would need to apply a more nuanced hand than is given to this film.  I was getting whiplash trying to figure out what sort of roller-coaster I'd boarded.  The special effects as noted are cool overall, but the CGI stuff is overdone and not well blended.  The pace is slow then fast then slow then break-neck; the ride on this thing is uncomfortably unpredictable.

It's not unsurprising that I feel compelled to compare this movie to its parody, the 2012 "Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies."  I reviewed that one in 2017.  That is a movie that knows exactly what it is trying to do and hits the bullseye.  Plus the Abe actor is utter perfection.  If you are looking for camp-parody-dark-humor-fun and don't mind trading vampires for zombies, then go there.  If you want a bigger budget, slicker production, and a race-to-the-finish climax, then this vampire flick is where you want to be.  In spite of the issues, it's a great addition to the genre.

7.    A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night - 2014

If your mood is "I want a vampire film that feels brand new and yet timeless, that engages the brain and the emotions, that is dreadful without being overly gory" then give this one a try. 

Actually, it does not matter what mood you are in, you should give this a try because it is nearly flawless.

This film is so visually captivating that I probably should just post a pile of images here, rather than any words.  That would be consistent with the bare-bones dialog.  Everything is spoken in Persian, and the English subtitles rarely wrap to more than one line on the screen.  It's all in black and white, and every single shot is a tiny masterpiece.  This film is described by many as a vampire/ spaghetti-western, as it includes elements like violence, irony, anti-hero(es), a rough-and-tumble setting, deceit, lack of social order/stability, terror, and many of the visual cues and trappings of both of those genres.  

That categorization doesn't tell you anything, though.  And before I tell you anything I probably should watch it at least ten more times so I can figure out some of what the symbolism and imagery is trying to convey.  I mean, the cat for example.  The cat is a critical character in this film, even as it appears only a few times, but those times are pivotal.  Oh yeah, the cat is not mistreated and survives just fine, so you can feel free to watch this movie and see the humans get drained without worry.  

The setting is a fictional Iran, with a town so bleak it's called "Bad City."  A place where there is an open channel filled with bodies that never decay, and no one gives it a second glance as they walk by.  The strong prey on the helpless amid a town of squalor surrounded by desolation and oil rigs pumping endlessly up and down like vampires draining the ground of life.

The pace is slow, sometimes even literally slow-motion.  I can't usually sit still for tense scenes where I can't predict what might happen, but I was mesmerized.  This is a terrible beauty that comments on wealth, class, status, materialism, family, duty, revenge, feminism, power, age, desire, patriarchy, ambition, need, and most of the rest of life and death, too.  Just having the titular character skateboarding down a street with her open chador flowing out behind her like bat's wings is enough commentary to fill an entire book.

My favorite scene, although it's super hard to choose, is the one where our "heroes" meet by the power plant for a "date."  They've already spent the night together, but he has no idea who she is or if she's interested in him beyond that one-night-stand.  He's enthralled with her, and presents her with a pair of diamond earrings that he stole.  He notes her ears are not pierced, and says it's too bad she can't wear them.  She wordlessly (she almost never speaks) hands him a safety pin.  Surprised and also rather weirded-out, he does the job and she puts the earrings in.  You do not see her without them after that.  It's bizarre, tense, and feels utterly vulnerable.  It strikes me that this is their real "sex" scene.  This is the moment of consummation in their relationship.  

I could obviously go on and on about this vampire-art-noir creation, but it really would be better if you just watched it and enjoyed this refreshing and transformative take on the vampire genre.

Image Credits:  Wampire from  Let Me In cd cover, promo pic, and movie still. Queen of the Damned dvd cover, movie still, and gif shot from  Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter dvd cover, gif shot from, and movie still.  A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night dvd cover and stills from the film.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Halloween Movies of Choice 2020 - Movies 1-3 Creepy Good Surprises

So 2020 is turning out to be a year fraught with it's own kind of horror, and for those of us with a creepy mindset, one of the best ways to take a break from real horrors is to engage with fake ones. In 2017 I did a blog series of 31 Halloween movies in 31 days, and I think the time is right for another round.

The first post of my 2017 movies is here - so if you need even more ideas, go check out that and the posts that follow it.

So here we go!

Movies 1-3 - Creepy Good Surprises!

My theme for these first three movies is merely that they were much better than I had thought they'd be.  Nothing like a "pleasant" surprise.

Note: As always spoilers abound! Watch before reading!

1.    Sucker Punch - 2011

I originally avoided this movie because I heard there was a subplot related to trauma and mental illness, along with a setting in a sort of '50s insane asylum.  As someone with mental disability and PTSD, I didn't want to be dragged through another ableist slog of a horror film.  But I finally decided to give it a chance, and wow, I'm glad I did.  This movie is a wonderfully bizarre blend of film noir, period piece, steampunk, horror, action, weird, sci-fi, fantasy, manga, thriller, and pretty more.  The special effects, soundtrack, and much of the acting are gritty and great.

Our heroine "Babydoll" sees her father in law murder both her mother and sister, and then he frames Babydoll for these crimes and packs her off to a private institution that still practices lobotomies as a form of "treatment."  We, and Babydoll, overhear him bribe a slimy orderly to see to it that Babydoll is lobotomized almost immediately.  She seems to retreat into a complex fantasy world with multiple levels, imagining that she is working to free herself and other inmates from a human sex-trafficking brothel.

I'm not sure why this movie didn't make a bigger splash, because it seems have a lot to offer.  Perhaps it has to do with the various ways in which 'sucker punch' can be interpreted; maybe it's realizing that the 'fantasy' Babydoll conjures is actually playing out in the 'real' world; or maybe it's the way in which the team members die; or maybe it's the ultimate confirmation that even Babydoll does not escape her fate.  

The movie is also disjointed, moving through three levels of perceived reality.  Perhaps it's too triggering for some.  Certainly, I found Babydoll's situation to be agonizing, but I was able to finish the film because it depicts people taking control of their fate in even hopeless circumstances.  In the end, I was captivated by the total weirdness of it all, the honestly gruesome plot, and the fantastic action worlds of the meta-fantasy filled with mechs and monsters.  Sucker Punch is perfectly appropriate Halloween fare, and worth a watch (or rewatch) this season.

2.    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - 2016

Why, oh why, did this film not get all the super kudos?  Yes, the plot is obtuse and sometimes impenetrable, but the filming is amazing, the costumes are perfect, and every single actor has completely bought in and gives their all.  Are the reviewers not genre-savvy?  I see all sorts of criticisms out there about the predictability and lack of surprises and do the reviewers not realize this is a parody and it uses well-known tropes as part of the vehicle for that parody?  Sigh. 

Anyway, I loved this thing.  It's ridiculous and beautiful.  If you are not captivated by the scene where Elizabeth and her future husband resort to hand to hand combat as a result of a failed marriage proposal, then I don't know what you want from a movie.  I was doubly sold when a friend who has a squeamish tummy couldn't even make it through the beginning exposition with the paper-pop ups.  She saw all the paper-depicted-gore and turned green.  Then she vetoed the movie on the grounds that it looked disgusting.  Which it is.  It's a zombie movie, right?

This is a seriously excellent zombie flick with dedicated performances.  Some of the landscape scenes are simply haunting.  The fight scenes in gowns are wonderful.  Oh, and the riffs on Austin's work are spot on, and often word for word from the book.  This romp is well worth your time for Halloween.  Enjoy the zombie glory and don't worry too much about the point and you'll have plenty of fun.

3.      Vampyr - 1932
I generally enjoy old black and white horror films, the earlier the better.  Film was precious enough and novel enough in the first decade of the 1900's that it was often used for projects of some importance or cultural significance.  By the 1930s, things were already changing, and it was more common to find film used for "less vital" topics that the producers did not imagine would be of interest a hundred years later.

The movie Nosferatu 1922, which I reviewed in my last series here, has consistently captivated those of us who love the vampire genre.  I had not heard similar praise for Vampyr, and given the later 1932 date I thought maybe it just wasn't up to snuff.  So I put off watching it.  That was a mistake since this is an absolute gem, with tons of disturbing imagery and a deliciously foreboding tone.

Our hero stumbles upon a family cursed by a vampire.  As the lord of the house is killed to keep him quiet, our hero reads the old man's journal and uncovers the nature of the curse.  The younger daughter of the lord assists him in his searches for the prime vampire, who must be destroyed to free her sister before the sister becomes a vampire, herself.

Along the way is all the great, creepy scenes, and a really very disturbing end for the village doctor, who was in league with the vampire.  I'll mention that only once before have I seen so
meone offed in this manner, and I thought it was horrifically original.  Nope, here it is all the way back in 1932.

This aged beauty of a film is worth the watch, even with the grainy, blurry texture of the remaining prints.  Definitely put it on your watch list for the season.
Image Credits:  Sucker Punch I own this CD case and also from . PPZ CD case and then studio promo image.  Evil Dead II movie case and action shot from  CD case for Vampyr images from screen shots.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

NaPoWriMo 2020 - Poetic Brainplace #1

"Nothing makes us happier than ... "
Hello Poets!

Welcome to the first of 31 little portals into the "Poetic Brainplace" that lives in all of us.

Today's poem to read is "Rabbit" by francine j. harris.  Go give it a read, and then come back here.  In fact, I'll go read it with you :)

Ok, let's look at the last few lines:

                           We linger the dark  
until it is safe to come out. To offer a nose.  
a cheek for touch. the top of a crown. Nothing
makes us happier than another rabbit. 

In that phrase "Nothing makes us happier than another rabbit," we find ourselves confronted.  This is a bold statement, and one we may instinctively agree with or may reject.  Any direct statement like this in a poem will tug at us - to agree, to scoff, to open our eyes wide and say, "I never thought of it like that."

Write this on a page "Nothing makes us happier than                    ."  Fill it in with five different words that bring out different feelings, like something that disgusts you, something outrageous, something nonsensical, something humorous, something that's a lie, etc.  Don't concentrate on meaning, just feel.  Sit with those feelings a moment ... this is a poetic brainplace.

Now go ahead and use any prompt or idea for the day for a topic/subject, and see where this feeling leads!  If you are stuck with no ideas or prompts, here's one you can try ...

NaPoWriMo Prompt 1

Cheers, JA

Image:  A Coy Smile, CC-4.0 Attribution Share Alike International

NaPoWriMo 2020 - Poetic Brainplace Introduction

Nothing inspires poetry writing like poetry reading!
Hello Poets!

Prompts will abound this National Poetry Month, and mostly they will be of the "write a poem about such-and-such a topic" variety.  Those prompts can be frustrating sometimes, since they don't actually help with that tricky, actual "poem-ing."  It's pretty straightforward to write about a topic from a factual point of view, but how do we end up with a poem-sort-of-thing at the end?  How do we get to that place inside that makes poetry - that "Poetic Brainplace?"  (and yes I said 'brainplace' not 'brainspace' because I like the way it sounds.)

How do we turn this:

"Life decisions can be difficult to make under any circumstances, but particularly when you don't have much information about the material differences between your choices up front, or the consequences that will result later.  We expect that regret or second-guessing will somehow be inevitable no matter what we choose.  Even so, we can't avoid making those decisions, and facing those consequences."

Into this:
 (Excerpt from "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost)

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I believe that part of the challenge is that poetry comes from a very different part of the brain than almost any other thing we do or think about.  It somehow uses words to bypass words, to bypass our higher thinking, and suddenly presents truth with immediate conviction.  We don't even really need to understand what the poem 'means' to access that truth, that knowing, that sudden sense of "ahhhh" that somehow uses words to talk to places inside of us that formed before language.

There is, as I see it, only one sure-fire way to enter and abide in that particular "poetic brainplace," and that is by reading poetry.  And note, it does not take much reading at all to move you from your "today I have to clean the bathroom, write a report, and take my vitamins" brianplace into the poetic brainplace.  A single phrase can do it - but the more you read it, the easier it gets to write it.  And note, once you start reading poetry, well, it feels like feeding a part of yourself that's always been hungry.

So this month I'm going to provide little jump-starts for you that will take only 5 to 7 minutes each.  They will include reading a short poem or excerpt, and then a suggestion or two for using that as a portal inside your own poetic brainplace.  Once there, whatever prompt you choose for the day will resonate much more clearly inside, and hopefully, poetry will flow!

Ok here we go, a post a day, so read on!
Cheers, JA

Image:  Public Domain, Lady Reading Poetry 

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Return of the Skeleton Key swag!

The Skeleton Key!
Called "Skully" for short,
I've made piles of these ...

Before I headed out to WorldCon 2019 in Dublin, I considered what fun stuff I might want to bring along to share.  Business cards are of course a must, since little slips of random paper torn from the schedule upon which people scribble your twitter handle do quickly get mixed with the dirty socks in the suitcase and are never seen again (except as shreds of unknown origin emerging from the dryer.)  A colorful business card has a better chance of being retrieved before being lost to the laundry, and perhaps even of surviving the extra rinse cycle, too.

Years ago I had gotten myself some cool business cards, which were very fun to hand out and seemed to mostly serve the purpose of an information source with a certain durability.  But then before the HallowRead Horror Con in 2018 I decided that it would be even better if it could be promoted to actual swag.  You know - a nice little free bonus that would be fun and useful to make getting someone's business card a time of joy instead of "crap I now have tons of these things."  That's when I made the Skeleton Keys, as noted in a previous post.

The Skeleton Key with traditional skull charm, as well as
moon phase charm, and dragon charm.
The Skeleton Key (or Skully) consists of four important parts:  The business card, the key ring, the aluminum key-shaped bottle opener (probably breaks on first use) and the charm (stone skull and crystal bead.)  Definitely cool swag.  Plus, if you don't want my card, you can ditch that part and just keep the bottle opener, or use the charm as a zipper pull for your jacket, or at the least have a backup key ring.  No one has yet objected to getting my card in this form, and instead they seem to think it is at the least something different.

I've now made tons and tons of Skullys (not 'Skullies' that seems insulting to the powerful Skully) and handed them out whenever I give workshops or presentations, and have them on hand at Cons to trade with other scientists, writers, and fans like me.  So of course thinking I was heading to my very first World Science Fiction Convention, I made about 60 and hauled them across the pond.

The "Skully" updated with kitty charm
and special blue crystal butterfly!
Given this was not specifically a horror Con, this time I created a few different variations, all with a small crystal accent.  First I played off of the design of the card itself and attached not only skull charms, but dragon and moon charms as well.  Then I kind of lost it and started putting on all kinds of weird things like little pewter light bulbs, blue stone star beads, little metal flower charms, and whatever else I had on hand.  The most highly prized of which became the cat with the special blue butterfly crystal!

But as it turns out, WorldCon Dublin was so hectic I hardly got a chance to breathe as I was swept from one panel to another.  While I managed to share some with my fellow panelists and a few fans, I ended up bringing most of my dear Skullys back home with me.  They were bummed they did not get to spread their joy and power.

However, this does mean I now have Skullys on hand, and will probably be dragging them everywhere for a while.  So if you see me at a Con or panel or workshop (or anyplace at all), ask for a Skully!  It might even be a skull, but no guarantees ...

Cheers, JA

Image Credits:  Me!

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Plans Piling Up for 2019 - Science and Writing and Education, Oh My!

Time does it's thing.  2019 is on the way!
Hello Folks!

2018 has been filled with ups and downs, but overall I'm calling it a win.  That might be because, as the years go by, I'm becoming more of an optimist.  This seems impossible under the present circumstances of the world, and yet I see it happening to myself.  With some surprise, I see my old cynicism being overtaken by a sort of circumspect, determined hopefulness.  A sense that things can and will change, and that I can be a meaningful part of making the world a better place.

Now, I'm not sure my schedule for 2019 is really a reflection of my trying to improve the world, or just a result of my having some amazing opportunities to share science, education, writing, poetry, and more fun stuff.  It is all hard work, but I love it so much.

So here just a bit of the intense geekery that this scientist/writer/poet/advocate hopes to have on tap for 2019 ...

Women in Space Conference, February 2019, Arizona
I'm working with some amazing science and education colleagues to present a talk entitled "Space Ethics and Our Expanding Vision for Exploration: Core Conversations," as well as a poster about "Remote Mentoring of Postdocs - A Preliminary Look at Effective Approaches to Increase the Accessibility of Postdoc Opportunities."  Haven't heard yet if I might end up on a panel there, too, but that'd be great if so.

Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, March 2019, Texas
One of my two big science conferences every year.  Okay, the abstracts are not in yet for this, but I'm planning to submit for a talk about our research into the needs and barriers of scientists who want to engage in public outreach.  We're just finishing up the manuscript, so now is a good time to share.  I'm also planning to get in on a poster with colleagues from our SSERVI TREX group about the maturity of the lunar regolith.  AND I'll be in on a poster about looking at the relative age of impact crater ejecta in different wavelengths.  No doubt I'll be helping out new-timer students and postodocs with reviewing their talks and posters.  I'll also continue to be a part of the group that makes sure the Susan Neibur Women's Networking Event happens every year - it's a fantastic event.  Busy, busy meeting.

Balticon, May 2019, Maryland.
I have so many ideas for this, and I really have to get my stuff sent in!  I've an idea for a fun science panel, as well as a presentation on "Planetary Impacts:  From Creation to Destruction."  Also a writing presentation about "Making Science Work in Your Fiction:  Beyond Facts and Research to the Heart of Your Story."  So I'll get those ideas in and see what the programmers might like ...

World Science Fiction Convention, August 2019, Dublin.
My first WorldCon!  I've been talked into this by a good friend who has gone for years.  (Note pre-twisted arm.)  Plus I've never been to Ireland.  So this could be a lot of fun.  She and I have an idea for a fun panel and some excellent panelists for the science track.  And we are going to propose a tag-team science talk that should be very thought provoking and get lots of audience response!  So stay tuned to see what the programming committee decides on our stuffs.

Hippocamp, August 2019, Pennsylvania.
This is an excellent creative nonfiction conference that I've had my eye on since my memior-writer sister pointed it out to me.  I've proposed a session on a topic that is near and dear to my heart, "A Glorious Alchemy: Blending Science and Nonfiction to Create Writing that Readers Crave."  Hope the programming committee picks it up because I'm so stoked to present it!  But even if not, this will be a great place to become more in touch with the nonfiction community, and learn more about my own nonfiction process.

AAS Division for Planetary Sciences Annual Meeting, September 2019, Geneva.
The second of my two big science conferences each year.  In 2019 we are meeting internationally, joint with the EPSC in Switzerland.  Many plans still in the works.  This is going to be great ...

HallowRead 2019, October 2019, Maryland.
Near and dear to my heart, this little horror writers' conference is not to be missed by anyone in the DMV area.  It is mostly home to paranormal romance, but any stripe or flavor of horror is welcome.  Relaxed, casual, and very welcoming.  I've been the only poet going, and so the organizer named me her Poet Laureate, which makes me smile from ear to ear.  I have plans to do a "Science in your Horror" workshop this year.  I have a reputation to uphold, as people keep asking me what I'm going to do to top my last two workshops.  This, as you can see, is a very positive and friendly group!

Other possibilities I really have to make a choice about VERY SOON ... can't do everything (can't I?)

Muse in the Marketplace, April 2019.
Stokercon, May 2019.
Readercon, July 2019. 

And more!  Gonna have to work to carve out my science research time, and my actual story writing time!  I want to see myself do a lot of submitting this year, so I've got my work cut out for me!

Image Credit:  Free download from Pixabay found via Creative Commons CC 3.0

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Writer Interview - A.L. Kaplan

Today I'm pleased to bring you a writer interview with speculative novelist and poet A.L. Kaplan! A. L. Kaplan’s love of books started as a child and sparked a creative imagination. Born on a cold winter morning in scenic northern New Jersey, her stories and poems have been included in several anthologies and magazines. Her novel, Star-touched, was released October 1, 2017. She is the Maryland Writers’ Association’s Chapter/Board liaison and served on the Howard County Chapter board for several years. A. L. is a member of Broad Universe and holds an MFA in sculpture from the Maryland Institute College of Art. When not writing or indulging in her fascination with wolves, A.L. is the props manager for a local theatre. This proud mother of two lives in Maryland with her husband and dog.

1. You have only three minutes to convince a stranger to read your latest work. What do you tell them about your writing, and about yourself, to get them interested?

Eighteen-year old Tatiana is running from her past and her Star-touched powers eight years after a meteor devastates earth’s population. Gifted with the ability to both heal and destroy, Tatiana seeks refuge in a town she once visited. But this civil haven, in a world where society has broken down, is beginning to crumble.

I had no idea that we’d have so many natural disasters or that huge asteroids would be flying so close to earth this year when I wrote Star Touched. It’s rather frightening how many similarities there are to what’s going on now both environmentally and politically.

2.  Your spaceship can travel to any world, real or imagined. Where do you go?

I’d love to travel inside my mind and find out what’s going on in there.

3.  What was your favorite book you that read as a child? What have you read recently that you can recommend?
I grew up reading James Herriot, Jack London, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Albert Payson Turhune, and of course J. R. R. Tolkien. Lord of the Rings may have birthed my love of fantasy, but there are three other books I read that were a huge influence: Island of the Blue Dolphins, My Side of the Mountain, and Julie of the Wolves. I guess I have a thing for kids surviving on their own in the wild. My favorite musicals are about orphans as well: Annie and Oliver.

There have been several books I’ve read recently that have been really good. The House on Moss Swamp Road by M J Patrick comes to mind, as does The Fuller’s Apprentice, by Angela Holder, The Enchanted Dagger by Vonnie Winslow Crist, and Dawn Study by Maria V. Snyder. I don’t often read non-fiction, but The Strong Woman Trap: A Feminist Guide for Getting Your Life Back by Sasha Mobley was very enlightening. I could go on, but there is only so much space in your blog.

4.  How do you meet and stay engaged with other writers?
I’m very active in the Maryland Writers’ Association at the state and chapter level. I’m also in a critique group and am a member of Broad Universe. I’ve made some great friends at conventions like the MWA Writing Conference and fan-based cons like Balticon. This year I’ve been invited as a participant at Raven Con in Williamsburg on April 20 – 22, and Balticon in Baltimore, Maryland on Memorial Day weekend. I’m really looking forward to them. Book festival are a great way to meet people as well, and Facebook makes it easy to stay in touch and find out what other writers are up to.

5.  What is a quote that resonates with you - either from yourself or someone else?

“Be who you are.” It’s an important theme in Star Touched. My main character, Tatiana, is afraid to be who she really is. It’s one of the quotes I sign in my books. It’s also on my license plate. (A birthday present from my husband this year.)

6.  Do you have a personal symbol or icon with which you identify?

I don’t know about an icon or symbol, but I do feel a connection to wolves. When I was in high school I had a dream about wolves. The next day I went to the library and started reading. The more I learned, the more I liked. My collection now includes books, art, toys, and a few odd things like a howling cookie jar. Wolves have also inspired several stories, including my short story, Wolf Dawn, which is in the Young Adventurers: Heroes, Explorers, and Swashbucklers anthology.

7.  How do you find good new reads in your genres of choice?

There are several places to find new books. Friends recommendations, perusing the stacks in a bookstore or library, Goodreads, and of course, talking to authors. There’s a lot out there. I also look for those free book days. If I like that first one I’ll by others by the same author.

8.  What is one thing that really scares you?

That would be tornados. I’ve never seen one, but they really freak me out.

9.  Which conferences/book fairs/meetings do you try to never miss each year?

Balticon has always been my go to.

10.  You have a magic wand that can cast only one kind of spell. What does your wand do?

My wand has the ability to cast unlimited heal spells that can also cure illnesses like cancer, AIDS, and depression.

11.  Where can fans find you and your work online?

@ALKaplanauthor on Twitter

Image Credits:  All images provided by author and used w permission.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Writer Interview - Shadow Leitner

Shadow Leitner - Beautifully Haunted Writer
I'm honored to present a blog interview with Haunted writer Shadow Leitner!  She graciously posted an interview with me on her excellent blog Dark Inklings, and I'm so happy to have her here today - so read on to learn about Shadow, her haunted writing, and what really scares her :)
Shadow Leitner spent over a decade in the performing arts but left the stage for the page to write Paranormal, Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Gothic Romance novels for Young and New Adults, and thoroughly enjoys torturing her imaginary characters with love and other peculiar things.  She also creates beautifully haunting art with her iPhone, consumes absurd amounts of coffee, and is enchanted by all things vintage, old world and macabre. She’s also quite fond of nonsense literature. Well, all sorts of nonsense really.  Shadow haunts from Maryland, with her husband, their two spawn, and a menagerie of mostly domesticated creatures.
1.  You have only three minutes to convince a stranger to read your latest work.  What do you tell them about your writing, and about yourself, to get them interested?
I am Beautifully Haunted. Eventually, the voices in my head make it to the page where they can haunt you, too.
2.  Your spaceship can travel to any world, real or imagined.  Where do you go?
I travel to a steampunk world where the cities and towns float in the air. There I own a Victorian mansion which I open-up as bread & breakfast for other airship travelers.
3.  What was your favorite book you that read as a child?  What have you read recently that you can recommend?
I was a bookworm growing up, so I have many, many favorites, but the first book I remember having a real impact on me was Shadow Castle by Marian Cockrell. It’s about a fairy prince who marries a human princess and trouble ensues.
Where to start, I’ve read so many great books lately. I just finished The Mara Dyer Trilogy and started the first book of its companion series The Noah Shaw Confessions by Michelle Hodkins.  They are YA and deliciously dark. I’m in love and dying for the next one to be released. In the adult, more ghostly realm, I’ve recently finished and highly recommend The Haunting of Maddy Clare and Silence for the Dead by Simone St. James.
4.  How do you meet and stay engaged with other writers?
Well, it works like this, I stalk my favorite authors, wrestle them to the ground, chain them in my basement and like that we are besties. Okay, not really, that would be creepy. Don’t do that.
The real answer is I belong to author organizations and attend meetings, conferences, etc.  I write a blog for Dark & Gothic Writers called Dark Inklings where I get to hang out with other cool Night Writers. And yes, I do totally stalk other authors, but in the nice, safe (for them) environment of the internet and social media.
5.  What is a quote that resonates with you - either from yourself or someone else?
So the darkness shall be the light. – T.S. Elliot
6.  Do you have a personal symbol or icon with which you identify?
White spiders. Though I’ve never really thought of them as a personal symbol or icon and I’m not particularly fond of them, either. However, they seem to have an affinity for me and show up often. I certainly sit up to take notice when they do. I’ve come to accept them, seeing them as messengers, who let me know when I’m on the right track.
I’m also very fond of black hearts.
7.  How do you find good new reads in your genres of choice?
Well, there is this place where all the available space is covered in books and all of them are free. FREE. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It is called the Library, and while I could literally set up a cot and live there, I don’t have to, because I can take the books home with me. I promise this place is not a figment of my imagination. It’s real. One should really check it out. ;)
I refer to Goodreads a good bit, as well. Come friend me and we can share all the books. Muahaha.
8.  What is one thing that really scares you?
Being eaten alive by zombies and tornadoes, but then that would be two things. So let’s stick with zombies because they really freak me the f**k out.
9.  You can create the perfect one-week writing retreat - describe what makes it ideal for you.
The perfect retreat would to be holed up in a historical place, such as a Victorian mansion or castle with roaring fires and plenty of coffee. Being in such a surrounding the stories almost vibrate out of me and reverberate off the walls, but then that might be coffee. It’s hard to tell.
10.  Which conferences/book fairs/meetings do you try to never miss each year?
A new one for me, but one I don’t plan on missing is HallowReads. There are many others I haven’t been to but would love to attend.
11.  You have a magic wand that can cast only one kind of spell.  What does your wand do?
My wand transports me where ever and whenever I want.
12.  Where can fans find you and your work online? is my main haunt, but I can also be found creeping around on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest.
13.  What is the question I should have asked?  Answer in the form of a haiku or limerick.
How reliable of narrator are you?

When you've bats in your belfry that flut,
When your comprenez-vous rope is cut,
When there's nobody home
In the top of your dome --
Then your head's not a head; it's a nut
-        “The Nut” by Anthony Euwer

Image Credits:  All images provided by and used with permission of Shadow Leitner.