Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Primal Essence: The Mudman's Top Ten New Views of 2017

2017 saw a lot of growth for the A-List! I found a comfortable schedule wherein I could squeeze in three reviews a week, and I intend to hang onto that schedule for as long as I can. I opened a Patreon, which has been an exciting experience so far. I posted a bad movie sci-fi novella. I was able to find nine weird books to talk about--not as many as I'd hoped, but that's what next year is for. It was a marvelous time and I can't tell you how glad I was to have this site to go back to whenever the real world came down too hard on me. The fact that so many of you kept showing up week after week made it all the better. I may curate its entries, but it's really you guys who build my A-List...you're all on my A-List of People. You are the finest souls I know.

The movies on this list are the cream of the crop. They tore my heart from my chest and shook up my soul. I hope you track them down if you haven't already because they will reshape your life for the better. Well, actually, it's for the worse. But in a good way. Capiche?

FROM BEST TO BESTEST:


#10 - I AM HERE...NOW, by Neil Breen

It is only out of a stubborn respect for the later entries of this list that Mr. Breen ended up at the number ten spot...otherwise this one would be much higher. I Am Here...Now was the best possible introduction to Breen I could(n't)'ve hoped for. I've seen some pretty bizarre Ancient Alien stories over the years, but this one takes the cake--Breen is a sign that Weird Film is far from dead, even as the Intentional Bad Movies try to take their cut from the legacy spawned by the people whom Breen now succeeds. May self-awareness never touch you, Neil, ol' buddy. I'm so glad I have the rest of your filmography to discover.


#9 - THE PHANTOM COWBOY, by Robert J. Horner / SMOKING GUNS, by Alan James

A dirty stinkin' tie! I knew I had to have one B-Western on here and no matter how much boiling down I did I couldn't pick one of these over the other. Smoking Guns is definitely the "better" movie, but the sheer shittiness of The Phantom Cowboy makes it feel truly alien. I'm starting to doubt I'll find Westerns weirder than these two, but if these are the best there are I'm in good company. I've definitely raised a lot of eyebrows in my time talking about the movies I watch with the people I know in Real Life. They've never been raised higher than when I tried to describe these two.


#8 - DRUMS O' VOODOO, by Arthur Hoerl

'Cause the drums make me happy...drums make me happy...my feelings on the so-called "race pictures" have shifted somewhat since I wrote this review due to some things I've learned about them (i.e. creative control was not in the hands of the actual black performers as much as I thought), but there's no taking away the talent from Drums O' Voodoo's cast. Aunt Hagar is still one of my favorite movie characters of all time, and to my dying day I won't forget the time she fucking sassed off Jesus. At this point, I feel I've seen every voodoo movies there is, but there's something deeply special about this one. I'm (ideally) getting a new copy soon, which may be from a different print...I may have to write something up if it turns out the lost footage is in this version.


#7 - JUNGLE TRAP, by James Bryan

I don't like getting hyped for movies because it's so easy for those sorts of hopes to get dashed. But not when James Bryan and Renee Harmon are at the helm. My heart nearly exploded when I learned this was a thing and it was a tough sweat waiting for it to come out. But it was worth it. Farewell to a pair of great careers...you guys made my life, one last time. Oh, how I wish you still had one left in you.


#6 - SWEET TRASH, by John Hayes

Now we're slipping into the New Weird. For me, that is. I spent so much of my life thinking I'd seen all the greats, but then this year came along and I started to see some trippy fucking shit. Sweet Trash is apparently not overly beloved even among trashsters, which is saddening. This movie dips into territory both grim and hilarious, often without warning, in the best of ways. As far as boggy-surreal nightmares go, this one just barely beat out Disconnected and Euridice BA 2037, which would make a great triple feature with this.


#5 - NIGHTMARE ALLEY, by Edmund Goulding

Gotta have at least one legitimately good movie on here. I guess this Ty Power guy is hot stuff, huh? Well, even if I had known that at the time, I would've been swept off my feet by this movie. A clammy, greasy, disconcerting expose of circus life, this one fits in perfectly with some of my other favorites from this year like The Unknown and The Amazing Mr. X, but this one is the best of all of them. I've been watching a lot of Hollywood dramas from the '40s now in the wake of sitting down for this three times in a row. I hope they won't make me sick.


#4 - BLOODY WEDNESDAY, by Mark G. Gilhuis

When I was writing the list I kept putting this on here for some reason. I'd take it off, asking myself, "Wha...really?" Then I would rewatch it and remember everything. For a while I would just quote that goddamn teddy bear, voice and everything, and sometimes people would hear me and worry about my health. Simultaneously the most depressing and hilarious movie about mental illness I've seen, Bloody Wednesday is so unsure of what the heck it's supposed to be that it becomes a psychedelic trance. I've found for myself a new classic of the slasher (?) genre, which isn't an easy feat these days.


#3 - INFRASEXUM, by Carlos Tobalina

Yes, I like this one more than Flesh and Bullets, because I'm a sucker. It's almost unbelievable to me that this was Tobalina's debut. This is a ballsy film to make under any circumstances, and yet porn is a weird thing, and thus he built a whole career out of this. I wasn't expecting to get a Pseudo-Philosophical Voiceover-Journal Inner-Quest Movie that also had a disembowelment scene, but at this point, I should know better. Art and trash go well together and this is a great example of how they pulled that off in the late '60s.


#2 - GRETTA, by John Carr

No explanation. It's not even based off the book--it just exists. It's like 35 movies got stuck in a blender and the director drank the result, and the camera implanted in his brain recorded everything he saw afterward. Or, alternatively, it was originally an 8-hour mega-epic like von Stroheim's Greed and they cut out too many reels. Why should we care about this occasionally-creepy romance when there are killer beetles...and vice versa? Better yet, it has a "sequel." If you count movies that recut other movies to make them even more confusing as "sequels," that is.


#1 - THE TELEPHONE BOOK, by Nelson Lyon

The best. The Holy Grail. This is why I got into reviewing movies. I laughed, I screamed. I could go on forever but The Telephone Book is really good, okay? Every new scene brought fresh surprises that I could never have expected--which is really what cinematic media is meant to be about. For a movie about sex, it felt like sex...it kept building, and building, and building, and then there was that ending and there was such joy. A vulgar, mind-boggling cartoon brought to life, I'll never see anything like it again; but then, I was lucky enough to see it in the first place. 

AND THE BOOK OF THE YEAR IS... *DRUMROLL PLEASE*
...
...
...


THE UNHOLY THREE, by Tod Robbins

Man, I sure read a lot of bullshit this year. How could the Book of the Year be anything but this when the competition was Space Jason and voodoo sharks? The Unholy Three is a weirdly kinetic pulp pseudo-masterpiece, whose presence on this list means I can live with myself for not including The Unknown. Lon Chaney is a powerful figure even when he's not directly involved; and besides all that Tod Robbins is an accomplished enough writer to keep me hooked. Next year I'm gonna grab a copy of Robbins' "Spurs" to take a look back at the origin of Freaks, and this book will get a mention, as I've said, when I get to touching on Todd Browning's The Devil-Doll. Robbins also wrote a book called Mysterious Mr. Martin, which looks like a delight. More to follow!

So that's 2017! See you next year! I loved all the time we spend together and I can't wait to start again soon. In the meantime, you can check out the $1 tier on my Patreon to hear some of my Movie Thoughts. Otherwise...keeping dreaming, true believers!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Book Club of Desolation #21: Spiridon (1907), by Andre Laurie



And so it is that Bookvember 2017 comes to a close with another book about unusual ants. The Ant with the Human Soul was one of three ant-related texts which I knew would turn up on the site sooner or later; Spiridon is the second of them, and I'm sure that at some point in 2018 I'll be cracking open The Ants of Timothy Thummel as well. This will be part of my new initiative, which is to feature Book Clubs of Desolation every third week of the month. In the meantime, Spiridon is a fun way to close out the year--a strange ethical fable by a man famed for collaborating with Jules Verne.

Spiridon tells the story of Dr. Aristide Cordat, a young French med student who, with the aid of his Asian friend Baron Tasimoura, has brought new medical miracles to Europe. Surgeries that heal terrible illnesses in minutes, drugs that induce swift recovery--there seems to be no limit to the talent of the Cordat-Tasimoura team. We find out why Tasimoura seems to possess superhuman knowledge: he is superhuman. Specifically, he is actually Spiridon, the Emperor of a race of ants living in the ruins of an old Phoenician treasure-tower on an Italian island. After nearly ending up as one of Spiridon's vivisection victims while exploring the tower, Cordat discovered the various wonders of the ants and realized how valuable the giant ant's scientific knowledge could be. Finding that the curiosity was mutual, he helped Spiridon disguise himself as a human so he could become a student of human ways. Unfortunately, human and ant morality differs substantially, and it isn't long before Cordat and the rest of France realize that ants have no compunctions about murder.

Like the best sci-fi, Spiridon is surprisingly ahead of its time in a lot of ways. There are a lot of interesting ideas here that expose how people in the early part of the century were adapting to the still-fluid genre; for example, Spiridon's human-like size and intelligence are not customary to his species, but are instead chemically induced when the Ant Emperor ascends to the throne. The rest of the ants on his island are normal-sized, though they seem to have above-average intelligence, as they are capable of vivisecting Cordat intelligently (as intelligent as vivisection can get anyhow). There's something about the setup that recalls Plato's philosopher-king--the Ant Emperor is given his enhanced abilities so that he is better equipped to govern. It's a system of elitism but it also ensures that the governing elite is best equipped for leadership; Cordat's response to Spiridon's explanation is a wish that intelligence-enhancing drugs were given to human leaders as well, which is hard not to sympathize with.

The way in which the ants' ethics manifest, too, defies a lot of the expectations I had for a work of this time. This book is gory as hell! In fact, this may be one of the most violent books I've read in a long time. I knew I was hooked the instant Cordat woke up in the ant tower next to a goddamn eviscerated corpse--the eviscerated corpse of the brother of one of the main characters, at that! When Spiridon is kidnapped by Joel le Berquin, one of Cordat's friends who becomes jealous of him and wants his secret to success, his threats to vivisect the ant are turned on him when Spiridon escapes; Spiridon straps le Berquin to his own operating table and cuts out his organs. All of this is because Spiridon, while possessed of emotions, is ruled primarily by cold insect logic--he was threatened, so of course it makes sense to turn that same threat around on the threatener...and learn more about human anatomy, to boot! Spiridon manages to come across as a being ruled by an alien sense of ethics without being a Vulcan, which is better than a lot of Laurie's successor would do when writing characters controlled by logic rather than feeling. And indeed, logic was applied to the creation of the character, as Laurie demonstrates a knowledge of ants that helps him guide the plot. Specifically, he knows about the various chemicals used by ants to control their social order and extrapolates that into Spiridon's wonder drugs and paralyzing venom. It just makes sense for ants to be master chemists, because from a certain perspective they already are.

Now, this book does have some noticeable shortcomings. I am concerned sometimes that I talk about bigotry so often that my words have become meaningless after a time, but I honestly don't care, so let's talk about how this is another book where ant class divisions = race. There is a...sigh...charming passage where Laurie mentions that, just as there are divisions in ethics and logic between man and ant, there are also "real gaps of conscience between men of different races." Now, it's certainly undeniable that people of different races are going to be culturally different, but to call it "gaps of conscience" implies that some have better consciences than others, and that, just as the differences between Spiridon and his human compatriots are largely irreconcilable, so too are the differences between races. It read too much like the arguments white supremacists make all too often about "incompatible" cultures, wherein they automatically dismiss the idea that "gaps" between cultures can be accommodated without destroying, assimilating, or prioritizing one culture over another. And I know that's because this is a book from 1907, but the white supremacists of today are using the same lazy excuses people were back then.

The book struggles tonally, oftentimes unsure of whether this is all supposed to be fun and whimsical or dark and bleak. Characters will sometimes speak like they're in a comedy and act extremely aloof about the situation, but there are several instances of people being butchered alive, with their remains left to be found by their friends, family, and coworkers. There is also the character of Pia, whose brother Cordat finds at the beginning of the book, and who swears a vendetta against Spiridon as such. She loses her life trapping Spiridon in a burning building and her death is treated as a tragedy, but the book--spoiler alert--ends with Cordat using the ants' chemical secrets to bring Spiridon back from the dead. He completely invalidates the lives of an entire family who died horribly thanks to a creature who has killed and could kill again not only with a lack of compunction, but with a biological inability to generate compunction in the first place! Keep in mind--Pia and Cordat have romantic chemistry together! The ending admittedly reveals that Spiridon is effectively lobotomized as a result of his death and resurrection; still cognizant and intelligent for an ant, but with a broken will, and therefore unlikely to go around cutting people up again. But it's really unclear who's supposed to be the victor here. At this point our sympathy for Cordat has vanished, yet he dances away into the sunset clicking his heels over all the scientific secrets he's unlocked.

I mentioned at the beginning that Andre Laurie (born Paschal Grousset) was a collaborator of Jules Verne's. When researching Laurie I was surprised to find out that one of the Jules Verne books from my childhood, The Begum's Millions, was written almost wholesale by Laurie! In fact, it's entirely possible that The Begum's Millions' relationship to Jules Verne was simply that the more famous author's name was stamped on the front cover by the authors' mutual editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, while Laurie was in political exile. Spiridon is often described as the work wherein Laurie broke away from Jules Verne's mold, and I take that to mean that maybe this book was something of a rebellion against Verne's scientific optimism. Neither Cordat nor Spiridon give science a good name, and I feel that almost has to be intentional. Maybe Cordat is supposed to be a colossal asshole, consumed, just as Spiridon is, with his own curiosity, rather than the human consequence that can arise from experimentation. It wouldn't be an unusual statement for a book at the time to make.

Then there's the detail that Spiridon spends most of the book in a wax mask and fake gloves. I know it's fiction, but unless Cordat's colleagues were 90% blind I can't imagine them mistaking wax prosthetics in 1907 for real human flesh. These people are goddamn doctors! They should know what a person looks like!

Problems aside, however, Spiridon is by-and-large an entertaining work, managing to avoid being boring despite some rather substantial deviations from the main plot thread at times. It is snappily written for a book from the dawn of the 20th Century, and Michael Shreve's translation-adaptation with Black Coat Press has a good flow to it. In fact, there's more drive to this than the usual Jules Verne novel. I just hope Timothy Thummel doesn't try to say that the ants represent race again.

Speaking of Black Coat Press, December sees the release of my short story "The Curse of Orlac" in Tales of the Shadowmen Vol. 14: Coup de Grace, which stars and references a number of fictional characters who have been mentioned before on this site. For next year's volume I have a story planned which involves Spiridon in some capacity.

In any case: this is kinda it for 2017, then. Man, what a shitty fucking year. But at least the movies were good, and the books were mostly good, right? I hope I've helped make your life a little more bearable in these trying times. I've been watching movies this whole time to get prepped for 2018, and I'll tell you now: it's gonna to be a fucking party. But I don't want to get too ahead of myself yet. We've still got a Top Ten Movie List to do, plus we have to crown Book of the Year!

My Patreon will still be active while the A-List sleeps till January, so if you subscribe now you'll get tons of winter goodies. Plus, you can like the A-List on Facebook to hear what we're up to!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Book Club of Desolation #20: The Unholy Three (1917), by Tod Robbins



Now for something a bit closer to type. This year has seen me show off my love of Lon Chaney Sr., and while it is not strongly remembered today, one of Chaney's big hits was a movie called The Unholy Three. Well, technically two of his big hits were movies called The Unholy Three: Todd Browning directed a silent version in 1925, while a talkie remake was shot in 1930 by Jack Conway, both starring Chaney as the ventriloquist Professor Echo. The films were based off of a 1917 novel by Clarence Aaron "Tod" Robbins, who also wrote "Spurs," the short story which Todd Browning would adapt as Freaks. I found both versions of the movie to be an awesome showcase of Lon Chaney's talents, but the story always threw me. It's a confusing tale, not because of any particular complexity, but because the character's personal decisions are...weird. As it happens, it looks better on paper. The Unholy Three is a surprisingly good crime pulp with enough idiosyncrasies to it that it overcomes some of its notable flaws. It's a great book to continue our Bookvember reading experience with.

We open at a circus, where a performance is being held starring Tweedledee the midget, Hercules the strongman, and Echo the ventriloquist. Tweedledee is a genius but prone to a violent temper, and when he is insulted for his height too many times he attacks his heckler, and the three are forced to escape. Tiring of an existence as sideshow freaks, the three decide to pool their unique talents as Mind, Body, and Voice to take life by the horns and be free. This amounts to them opening a pet shop supposedly owned by Echo, who disguises himself as an old woman named Irene Blake. Tweedledee poses as her infant grandson Willie, but actually runs the show, while Hercules takes care of tasks around the shop as Cousin Harry. They make a small fortune selling cheap birds that seem to be talking parrots, thanks exclusively to Echo's ventriloquism. However, Tweedledee also has a practice of encouraging families to adopt him so that he can kill them and take their valuables. Such is what befalls the family and family-to-be of Hector McDonald, a young man who earns the Little Person's ire by blowing cigar smoke in his face. First he attacks Tommy, the nephew of Hector's fiance Dorothy Arlington; then, he frames Hector for the murder of his Uncle Tobias. In the end, Echo has had enough--this life of crime is not the adventure promised to him. He betrays his Master and calls upon the Voice of God Himself to save the day.

This is basically a Villain Pulp--see the Valley of the Zombies review for what I mean by that. We have our title characters, and they are evil, and the book sympathizes with them just as surely as it does with their victims. The Three are indeed very interesting. Tweedledee suffers from a rather stereotypical case of Little Man Syndrome, but at the same time he really does live up to his title of "the Mind." The film makes it clearer that the plot the trio undertake is eccentric primarily because such a scheme would be unbelievable in the eyes of the police; I suspect that's why Tweedledee chooses the modus operandi that he does in the book as well. He goes back and forth between a cold, philosophical predator and a manic storm of raw emotion--while his body is far from helpless, he is most unfettered in the mental realm. It's fascinating to me that he is the mastermind in the novel, while the two films place leadership of the trio on Echo's shoulders--probably because Echo was played by Lon Chaney, who is much more believable as a master villain than the high-pitched/German-accented Harry Earles. Echo is reduced to an almost child-like role as Tweedledee's servant, and he may be intended to be mentally disabled in some way. His ventriloquist dummy, "with legs like a goat and a face like an old man," apparently talks to him. (This may be one of the earliest "demonic" ventriloquist dolls I know of, as it predates Hugo from Dead of Night by almost thirty years; even if Echo's doll probably isn't really possessed.) The idea of a ventriloquist using their talents to impersonate God is a great idea and I'm disappointed I didn't think of it first. This is a pretty clever deus ex machina, in a rather literal sense. Book!Echo is also much more sympathetic than movie!Echo, who is much more sinister but still gets off easy. Really, a lot of the issues I had with the plots of the films come from the fusion of Tweedledee's character with Echo's. Hercules is the least fleshed-out of them, which is also a fact in the movies, but he presents some interesting enigmas. He's extremely loyal to Tweedledee almost to the point of seeming child-like, as Echo does, but he's also well-spoken. His idealism, the source of his loyalty to his Master, contradicts the brutal nature of his base strength. In some ways you can feel bad for him, because he's the one Tweedledee scams the most.

Unfortunately, the middle third of the book doesn't focus on its eponymous figures as much as we'd like, meaning that their confusing plan becomes even more random-seeming due to the fact that we see it from the perspective of their victims instead. It doesn't help that Hector, his uncle, and the Arlingtons are not particularly interesting characters compared to the Three. They also don't really possess any unique skill or trait that helps them overcome the Three--it takes Echo turning on Tweedledee to secure the victory of our "heroes." Fortunately, the entire book is very well-written. Robbins busts out the finest pulp purple prose to produce bombastic and memorable imagery. It gets a little cloying at times, much in the same way that you can get poisoned from too much Lovecraft, but it's hard to dislike the long description near the beginning of Tweedledee viewing his body as a grotesque cocoon, hoping that someday he will climb out of himself as a giant, with the strength to destroy his foes. We also get some pithiness through Echo's parrot-ventriloquism in a long bit which contains such gems as, "The worms are our fondest friends even when we are cold to them." Despite the complexity of his metaphors at times, Robbins leaves the plot very easy to follow, so it seems a little unnecessary that The Events Thus Far are summarized by Echo at the end.

There is racism in the book. There are a few descriptions of Jewish characters which might be antisemitic. In the early carnival scenes, too, the Wild Man of Borneo is described as a "half-wit Negro," which highlights the fact that these sorts of carnival shows were hugely exploitative. We need look no further than Nightmare Alley for this, but the low-budget nature of these shows meant they had to cut corners, which meant enslaving, abusing, or otherwise taking advantage of their performers. Hiram W. and Barney Davis, the two Little People who are the most famous historical examples of people exhibited as "Wild Men of Borneo," were mentally disabled--whether or not their act under P.T. Barnum and other show heads was exploitative is open to debate. In any case, the book's racial politics are uncomfortably dated, but there is nothing shriekingly hateful compared to what I've read recently.

The Unholy Three is definitely an imperfect book. It's a pulp, so I'd expect no different. But if you are a pulp fan and/or an enthusiast for extremely unusual crime thrillers, this will not let you down. Plus, you can probably get a kick out of the movies, as well, which differ substantially from the book. I'll return to this book somewhat when I finally get to Todd Browning's movie The Devil-Doll, as you'll see an echo of Professor Echo in that film's lead. This book once left powerful ripples in pop culture--maybe it's due for rediscovery.

If you want early access to reviews like this one, help me pay the bills on Patreon! Plus, you can like the A-List on Facebook to get updates!

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Image Source: Amazon

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Book Club of Desolation #19: Left Behind (1995), by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins



Disclaimer: If you are a person whose beliefs generally align with the views put forward in Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' Left Behind series--i.e. you are a premillenialist dispensationalist Evangelical Christian--you probably will not want to read this review. If you are a fan of their prose I recommend similar caution. This is because whether you find such an action justifiable on my behalf or not, I am about to, as the expression sometimes goes, rip this book a new one.

And before I continue with this next entry in our Bookvember adventure, I want to give a secondary disclaimer to those of you who don't buy into the Left Behind mythos: I don't have anything against mainstream Christianity. While I have my own beliefs and I will confess that those beliefs sometimes rub up against Christianity, I recognize that typical Christian beliefs in the United States are relatively non-toxic. I write this with the recognition that there's no avoiding discomfort in a review such as this--but I really do have to share my opinions on this book, for the reaction it elicited in me.

Left Behind, for those of you unaware, is a series telling the tale of those "left behind" to face the Great Tribulation after the Rapture takes the forgiven to Heaven. In a general sense, the first book establishes the premise of the series while introducing our principle characters. There are the members of what will be called the Tribulation Force (a league of faithful Antichrist-fighters), and their allies: we focus primarily on adulterer pilot Rayford Steele and a reporter named Cam "Buck" Williams. There is a plot about how in the early days of the Rapture, an Israeli scientist named Chaim Rosenzweig figured out to fertilize desert sands without irrigation; for this, Israel suffered a massive assault from post-Soviet Russia, wherein not a single person was killed, apparently by the hand of God. In the wake of the Rapture the social order has developed further from this, moving towards a UN-led one-world government under the command of charismatic young Romanian politician Nicolae Carpathia. Carpathia--if you couldn't tell from the name--is the Antichrist, and our heroes of the Tribulation Force slowly uncover the conspiracy he's set in place to ensure the rise of his dominion.

Here's the thing about Left Behind: it is not an inherently bad idea. There is a lot of mileage to be gotten out of a Rapture story--perhaps because of the Left Behind series, there has been an embrace of the idea in pop culture, regardless of the degree of religious intent in its presentation. Both as a secular and religious idea, Left Behind has potential. If you want to tell a more secularized version of the story, you'd have your basic Post-Apocalyptic model, with some potential for fantasy exploration--you could pit your characters against demons, for example. You could keep it ambiguous if it's the Biblical End-of-the-World or just an event that resembles such. And if you wanted to tell it as a story meant to convert people to Christianity, that could work just as well! Christianity guiding principle is ostensibly salvation, and so even if it jiggles the rules on the Apocalypse a little bit--have a story where our heroes are saved by their actions in the face of their final test! Left Behind thinks it's telling the latter story (and I'm sure at least some of the heroes go to Heaven in the end), but like a lot of works by Evangelicals, where it chooses to put its focus is where it becomes a thing of malice rather than mercy.

The issue with any sort of Rapture story is that the idea of a Rapture is inherently exclusionary. Typically, the estimates on the total of souls allowed into God's Kingdom by Rapture-believers represent a distinct minority of the human race. This usually contrasts the pop culture depiction of the Rapture wherein enough people are gone that society as we know it has collapsed. That was what I was expecting in Left Behind--cities on fire, planes crashing to the ground, power outages, cats and dogs living together...mass hysteria. Instead, the basic economy stays intact, airlines stay open, there is comparatively little social strife en masse...almost implying that few people were taken to Heaven in the end. And we do get specifics on who was taken, and who wasn't.

To begin with, all fetuses are taken to Heaven. This is a prelude to the scene wherein we learn about the abortion clinics who encourage people to get pregnant and have abortions just so they can stay in business. And the people who get pregnant and abort just for fun. I've already opened enough Pandora's Boxes, so I'm not going to go much further with this thread, but if the authors actually believe these clinics and people exist, that is absolutely repugnant of them. At best, they are emotionally manipulative; and frankly, folks, I'm just tired of all this hand-wringing hate against women who just don't want or can't have children.

Then there is the telling passage where we are learning about how babies and children almost universally vanished. That is a bit more bearable to me because it's less emotionally manipulative; then they say "even a few teenagers" were Raptured. That's some pretty telling phrasing there. Whether it's the opinion of the character saying that or the voice of the authors speaking through them, someone in the equation believes all but a few teenagers are so corrupt that they deserve eternal torture. I could dig my grave even deeper by wondering why any of these people deserve eternal torture for things like adultery or looking at porn (or "magazines which fed my lust," as the milquetoast prose would have it), but the more I tried to avoid looking for stereotypical opinions in the book, the more I found them. Of course the two old white Evangelicals writing about the Apocalypse believe that once puberty hits you you're worthy of damnation. Why would adolescent mistakes be forgiven by an all-benevolent deity, amirite?

I also don't really need to say that the book is racist, but when you've got a whole lot of celebration over Jews converting to spread the word of Christ, it's a little hard to avoid. Similarly, a lot of attention is drawn to the fact that the Antichrist is Romanian. Fiction is a slippery thing, in that it doesn't always represent the heart and soul of the creator, but if you do something too many times it's going to seem like a telling statement. I don't entirely know why LaHaye and Jenkins think Eastern Europeans are so sinister but it gets draining quickly.

Really, that's my issue with Left Behind: I went into it expecting better. The series is probably the most famous line of distinctly-genred "Christian fiction" books I know, and consequently, I was expecting something milder, more optimistic. And more convincing, because if Christian fiction is truly Christian it won't merely be entertaining. This sort of fiction should be convincing people to join up with what the authors (think they) practice, but instead it frames such a choice as one motivated by fear and exclusion. What is more is that, like a lot of the movies we've seen hitting theaters recently, it attempts to preemptively dismiss those who disagree with its view. This is not inherently an unsound argument strategy--you can toss out an opposing argument before it's aired, but it depends on how much you strawman your opposition, and how expertly you expose the irrelevance of such opposition. Near the end, the characters dismiss moderate Christians and their refusal to focus on the real problems of judging drug-users, abortion-havers, and porn-readers simply because the authors make them dismiss such people. After all, people, this is the Antichrist on the line, people!

Let's talk about this Antichrist. Nicolae Carpathia. What frustrates me is that that name is almost genius. He sounds like a fucking Doc Savage villain, and in a melodramatic, over-the-top pulpy atmosphere a character with that name could be used brilliantly. But this is meant to instead be a "subtle" tip-off that the head of the UN is the Son of Satan himself. The more I read that name the more I felt like the authors thought I was an idiot--that I couldn't figure out this guy was the Antichrist unless his name was some equivalent of "Damien Draculaston." I suspect from a certain point of view they do view their readers as not overly clever; that's why we're informed that Carpathia's enemies are heroic (i.e. masculine) via the fact that they have names like Rayford Steele, Buck Williams, Dirk Burton, and of course, Steve Plank. Maybe it's, yknow, "Plawnck," like the scientist, but if they mean like a plank of wood then it sounds like something Mike and the Bots would have called Reb Brown during Space Mutiny. If I can carry this tangent further, I have to comment on the fact that Rayford Steele's loved ones call him not "Ray" but "Rafe." "Rayford" is bad enough, but what could compel a writer to pen a series featuring a man named "Rafe Steele" as the protagonist?

Returning, though, to Carpathia--no, his name was not the only beef I had with him. Repetitious padding is what comprises most of Left Behind, but you will get so tired of hearing how Carpathia is handsome, famous, charming, the Sexiest Man Alive (which gets played up a huge deal), and 33 years old. Yes, I get it, he's 33 because that's how old Jesus was when he died--now I officially never want to read the words "33 years old" ever again. Then, the authors describe him on several occasions as "blond Robert Redford." NO. That is dishonest writing. If your fallback for physically describing your character is to compare them to a celebrity, you need another draft at best. Carpathia is set up to be charismatic because, as per the Christian tradition, he is a honey-not-vinegar sort of Antichrist, so nice and likable and talented that no one ever criticizes him, which is definitely an accurate and realistic view of humanity. We totally have people and things in our culture which are never criticized by anybody, right? In choosing this approach for him as a character, the authors make him come across as obviously evil--literally too good to be true. We humans wouldn't react to a man like him with adoration: we'd ask what he's selling.

Of course, another (possibly) unintended effect is that the book seems to encourage suspicion of those who bring peace and innovation. People have applied the idea of a charismatic and likable Antichrist to real figures all throughout history--"Of course Obama created a health care system which benefited millions! Giving you what you want is how the Devil hooks yeh." The message seems to be that political allegiances between nations, like the UN, are steps towards an order which will be easy for the Antichrist to rule. Consequently, it also warns us of figures in power bearing messages of pacifism. Admittedly, there have been real dictators who have abused our desire for peace to unleash terrible war--whether it's tricking us into thinking a war will bring peace or lying about their intent until their power is secured. But I've seen that fear used as an excuse to fight vague threats--somehow the presence of a supposed Antichrist induces moral corruption, but the definition of "corruption" and how it manifests often seems as vague and nebulous as the present definition of "political correctness." You get people believing that literally every politician is the Spawn of Satan and then you get people voted in who are going to make sure there's no education system to tell them otherwise. But I digress.

Eos, bring the dawn; Athena, heal my brain. Left Behind was disappointingly paranoid, misogynist, and boring. If you love reading books where the same details are repeated until they become meaningless, this may be your book. Christians deserve better fiction than this, in terms of both theme and writing quality. Dodge it like it'll burn you--and don't let yourself settle for this!

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Image Source: Wikipedia

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Book Club of Desolation #18: Benighted (1927), by J.B. Priestley



Spookyween has come and gone, but Bookvember rises anew! We've gone fairly light on books this year, but this month we'll be making four stops to the Book Club of Desolation. Starting off our celebration of bizarre literature is Benighted. It was from Benighted that we got the 1932 film The Old Dark House, which everyone likes for reasons I'll never understand. The Old Dark House is, despite being the Trope Namer, a late addition to the Old Dark House subgenre; though the form would persist into and through the 1940s, the ODH film's peak was really in the late '20s. This year has seen me take a liking to these creaky old mysteries, and as such, I wanted to dip into the literary origins of this cinematic cluster; Benighted was one of those which was still available and which was actually readable. Mary Roberts Rinehart, I'm sure I will get to you at some point--but for now, let's just get the crap out of the way.

Indeed, Benighted is very crappy. That may be due to the fact that it bears a very close resemblance to The Old Dark House, only it manages to be less funny, more boring, and most damningly, it lacks Boris Karloff. But it was, however, readable, in a way that the original 1925 stage play of The Gorilla (for example) simply wasn't.* Our principle characters are Philip and Margaret Waverton, two travelers who are joined in their voyage through rural Wales by young Roger Penderel. The trio end up going through a heavy rainstorm, finding the sole shelter for miles in the form of mysterious old Femm Manor, ruled over by the bombastic, unbalanced Horace Femm and his religious fanatic sister Rebecca. The travelers are eventually joined by two other travelers whose names I can't remember. I do know that one of them is named Gladys, and she ends up as Penderel's love interest for all the jack diddly it ends up meaning in the end. For the rest of the book, the travelers endure the strangeness of the Femms and their disfigured alcoholic butler Morgan until events reach their violent pitch.

The primary issue which readers may run into concerning Benighted thankfully manifests itself right at the start. Simply put, the book is dull, with the opening driving scene which takes our three heroes to Femm Manor reaching Manos levels of absurd length.** Trust me, it makes you wonder about the literary audience of the late '20s when the first chunk of the book is just Priestley finding new ways of saying "It's raining." And this sets the pattern for the rest of the book in another way: too much of the material printed is wasted on re-summarizing what a ghastly storm this is. I would argue that most of the book is spent describing the weather or having characters talk about the weather. And when they talk--dear God.

This is yet another book which I have spent my precious reading time on this year which features a Party of Roving Twits. You probably know the kind, even if you haven't read any of the abominable thrillers of the '20s and '30s which feature the archetype (and which I keep reading because I'm an idiot with high hopes). Everyone who isn't a pretentious asshat is foppish and disengaged to the point of inducing aneurysm. I tried to find conversations between the protagonists that were both interesting and relevant, and was completely without luck. I hate books where all the women do is scream and all the men do is make faux-Wilde pithy observations on everything. Especially when both insist on using such unbearably Caucasian similes as "strange as a mandarin."

Which is sad, because there is at least some good stuff here. Our ostensible villains, the Femms plus Morgan the butler, are the ancestors of the Sawyers of Texas, the Merryes from Spider Baby, and all the other degenerate families living in isolation spread out over 90 years of horror fiction. There's a great part where we learn that Rebecca's religious obsessions may stem from the fact that when she was young she would witness her father and brother bring women home to conduct orgies! I guess I can hardly blame her after that. But too little time is spent with these folk, and this creates a sizable schism in the text. Really, it's almost like Priestley wrote two books--one, a spooky Gothic horror-thriller, and the other, a soppy romantic drama about idiots--and fused them together in layers like an Oreo mishap. Characters will engage in pointless dialogue...then be trapped in a flooding room...then, more pointless foppishness...then, Morgan attacks somebody...like I said above, I shouldn't have hoped for much when The Old Dark House was such a fitfully boring film.

If you distrust my opinion and want to read overlong accounts of people drinking gin, Benighted may be for you. But honestly you really should run away from it fast. I haven't entirely given up on the books and plays which inspired the ODH thrillers, but damn if this doesn't make me want to.

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* For those of you who mourn the loss of the first two adaptations of The Gorilla which predated the 1939 Bela Lugosi/Ritz Brothers travesty, don't. The original play's primary form of humor outside of the usual "cowardice is funny" shtick is making fun of black people. It was a repugnant read and I'm sure both the 1927 and 1930 versions preserved this rubbish, if I know anything about the films of the late '20s/early '30s.

** Quick! Someone remake Manos: The Hands of Fate as an old-time Old Dark House movie! You can add the gorilla from House of Mystery! It'll be great!

Image Source: Valancourt Books 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Shark Exorcist (2015), by Donald Farmer



Here we are at last. Spookyween comes to the present day.

To those of you who came for the horror recs, this must seem like a disappointing end to Spookyween, as there's no way this movie can be good. To those of you who came here because you're a trash hipster like me, this must seem like a disappointing end as well, because I blew my chance to talk about the Donald Farmer movie that MATTERS. Yes, it's true, we didn't do Demon Queen this year. And no, I haven't seen Vampire Cop, if that's the Donald Farmer film you think is the Big One. Fact is, I needed a movie for the 2010s and The Amazing Bulk sure as shit isn't a horror movie--well, not conventionally, anyway. I've generally tried on this site to steer away from the maxim that trash is dead in the 21st Century, if anything because many of the great trash creators of yesterday are still alive and kickin'. Shark Exorcist is definitely indicative of the decline of the "bad movie" as time condemns that "genre" to mind-melting self-awareness, but the movie overcomes the crass cash-grabbiness of its title with sheer oddity. Farmer probably unknowingly shows us that if trash is to survive, it won't be in a form akin to the movies he was making in the '80s and '90s. It's probably the Neil Breen/Tommy Wiseau school of what-the-fuckery that will be remembered by people like me in the future, which Farmer comes hauntingly close to emulating.

A nun named Sister Blair is actually a Satanist, and she is presently wanted for torturing thirteen children to death in the name of the Devil. While the nun's on the run, she is confronted by a woman who knows of her crimes--she stabs this interloper and offers her body to the ocean, praying to Satan for an avenger. Said avenger takes on the form of a predictably awful-looking CGI shark. A red shark with glowing yellow eyes, no less! The shark first attacks Emily, Lauren, and Ali, a trio of friends who have decided to vacation by the lake. Ali is badly injured, but strangely, it's Lauren who seems most profoundly affected by the encounter with the creature. She becomes withdrawn and apathetic, almost seeming to take pleasure in the fact that her friend was hurt; eventually, she begins expressing an obsession with fish and water. Emily, with the aid of a priest named Father Michael, must slowly uncover the secret of the spirit that now lives inside Lauren. While this is happening we also follows the crew of a TV show called Ghost Whackers (?) as they invoke the spirit of the shark, causing the main hostess to be possessed multiple times (??). It all ends, of course, with a Shark Exorcism from a Shark Exorcist, and a(n un)predictable twist ending.

The reason why most people would be inclined to write Shark Exorcist off as irredeemable comes from the shaky boom in sharksploitation (ugh) movies these last few years. You know them, but I'll name them anyway: Sharknado, Ghost Shark, Two-Headed Shark Attack, Sharktopus, and probably many others which went straight to video on labels so small not even the Intentional Bad Movie fans could find them. I'll hear about them now and again in bits and pieces for the rest of my life, turning to them desperately at last after I've scratched my way all through the darkest deeps of women-in-prison flicks, Mondo movies, Z-list teen sex comedies, and all the other stuff I'll have to look to when I run out of the material I normally like. Anyway, Shark Exorcist is not that bad, largely because it's not done bad on purpose. There's only one moment of intentional comedy I can think of, and it actually works because it's so unexpected: Emily says, "It's like she's..." And we assume of course she's going to say "possessed," because this movie is unusually earnest when it comes to lines like that. But instead, the line comes out: "...really fucked up." Duh-dun-TSS.

What is bad is that the film is overly repetitive. Really, the same few scenes are repeated a couple of times--and the movie doesn't even reach its full 70 minutes before the end. There are several minutes of end credits, and then a frankly fascinating post-credits scene which I'll get to in a bit, which lasts for about ten minutes. This is a short film projected artificially to barely-feature length. But, oh, ho, ho, does it make up for it. Donald Farmer has lost none of the weirdness that makes movies like Demon Queen stand out decades later.

There are the possession scenes. Nothing spells fun like an adult flailing on the ground, shouting out garbage like, "I...will...eat...your...flesh...and...swallow...your...souls!" in the same voice middle schoolers do when trying to imitate their favorite death metal songs. Speaking of middle schoolers, we get a scene where Lauren, whilst in the throes of demon-shark possession, goes to a playground and comes across a character who is seemingly a child--except, she is played by an adult actress, so I assume she is supposed to be mentally handicapped. In a tonal whiplash which the film will repeat only once, Lauren takes this girl to a pool, where it is heavily implied she is going to molest her. It's just uncomfortable, but it's the first of a few nuggets of discomfort which help me feel that this movie is actually a little scary.

The next nugget is particularly visceral because it kinds of makes me wonder if I should be so quick to praise Director Farmer. This is kind of an infamous scene for those who have watched or heard of this, from what I can tell, but we get a prolonged sequence of a girl taking a nap in the sun while a fat man parades around her, taking increasingly creepy pictures of her semi-nude body. And then, he just leaves--not having directly harmed her, but with no explanation either! This movie is pretty sleazy when it comes to the female body, but it dives in headfirst in what we could guess is perhaps a bit of self-awareness. Maybe Farmer wants us to feel uncomfortable. Maybe he wants us to feel guilty for the voyeurism, deliberate or otherwise, that embody when we watch movies like this. But barring a statement from Farmer himself it's impossible for me to say.

And there is the post-credits sequence. Call me a blasphemer if you wish, but I will say the following with all sincerity: this scene is scarier than anything in The actual Exorcist. There, I said it. I have no apologies. The Exorcist took up two hours of my time and I still rolled my eyes and said, "The book was a lot better" (which is no insult to the book). Anyway: we end with a girl, who seems to be a high schooler, going into an aquarium which appears to be in the local mall. She expresses an uncomfortable amount of affection for the stuffed sharks they have there, and also rubs herself up against the tank like Lauren did when she was possessed. But then, while staring into the tank, she starts to break down crying. No one notices. She steps outside and leans against a wall, panting heavily as if shrugging off a severe near-death experience. During this entire sequence, there is no sound except for ambient music.

What.

No, seriously, what the fuck was that?! That's--that's weird! Can you imagine just seeing that in real life and having no context? Why was she even doing it in context? Was she sad the fish were trapped in a tank? Was she sad because she couldn't join them in the tank? Did she see something in the water that we couldn't? I don't care if this is sequel bait (no pun intended)--this is some weird shit, and I still get goosebumps watching this scene on my third viewing.

Of course, it's ruined a little by its very tail end, where the actress spins around suddenly to jumpscare us with fake vomit. So there's that.

It's very easy to condemn Shark Exorcist, for reasons pertaining to almost every detail of its existence. Perhaps in some senses it should be condemned. But it's weirdly captivating to me, and I hope I've compellingly shared enough of its weirdness with you. I encourage you as ever to seek it out, and have some fun with it this Spookyween.

Well, this is it--this is the last movie review of 2017. But the year's not over yet--we still have Bookvember to get to! Plus, this year I'll post my Top Ten New Views for 2017. Thank you all for a wonderful year. Now get excited for BOOOOKS!

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Hip Hop Locos (2001), by Lorenzo Munoz Jr.



Everyone I know of who has seen Hip Hop Locos hates it bitterly and deeply. That is because most people in this world--ostensibly--are sane. Spookyween, however, is not a holiday for sanity! It is a holiday of raw, unfettered chaos. The chaos present in Hip Hop Locos is of such an idiosyncratic brand that I can't help but love this movie through and through. It may have little appeal to those of you possessed of "taste" or "standards," but that's almost the point. I can hardly explain, but here I go.

Unodoz and J10 are two rappers appalled by the lack of Mexican rappers in the hip hop industry. (This movie makes no distinction between rap and hip hop, which I am told is not super accurate--but there is enough Venn diagram overlap where this may not be naivety on the filmmakers' behalf.) Thus they concoct the brilliant scheme of killing musicians and cocaine dealers to steal their music equipment, their cocaine, or both, and using the money they get from selling that, they'll buy recording time at a studio (?). The formula for the entire film: murder scenes cut by lengthy driving sequences or shots of the two rappers in dark rooms, in both cases repeating the plot premise of killing people for drugs/equipment so as to fund their rap career ad nauseum. Near the end, we get a hilarious sequence where they are unable to locate the house of their intended victim, and when they do get to said house, the man isn't home, so they just leave and never mention him again. The ending is inconclusive. Apparently they just keep killing people and all their wishes are granted.

Because there are only three kinds of scenes in this movie--talking in rooms, talking in cars, or killing people--this movie tries to make the mundane interesting by applying "cool" video effects. Shots will bounce around or become inverted at random. It's basically just a Rally of the Sony Filters. The insistence on raising the contrast of the already-muddy shots just emphasizes the largeness of our heroes' pores. It also disguises something that it took two viewings to confirm; these rappers spend most of their time wearing their beanies over their eyes, for reasons I can't divine. Plus, there's an insistence on dropping the pitch of peoples' voices, but not for any particular reason. Sometimes the pitch shift seems to have been added to emphasize a "scary" pre-murder moment, but this is done so infrequently and with such a lack of style that it's impossible to tell.

It's also impossible to tell if this movie believes that the true rapper lifestyle is as presented or if it makes fun of people dumb enough to believe such. Most of the dialogue is the movie is hopelessly inundated with exclamations of "homes," "esse," "eh," and "y'know what I'm sayin'?" And this is where the movie achieves the glory I see in it. The second murder scene involves a coke dealer being garrotted from behind. Whoever isn't doing the strangling keeps chanting, "Choke him, homes! Choke that mothafucker, homes! Choke him! Choke him, eh! Choke him, homes! Choke him, homes!" This scene lasts for almost exactly two and a half minutes. What's depressing about this is that this is actually the most accurate scene of strangulation I've seen in a while? Some last way too long, some are way too short. I can believe that the average adult has about two and half minutes of air in him. But the chanting really makes it go on for eternity and a day.

Regarding SFX/related material. One of the victims gets himself one of those rubber sticker blood spatters you put up on windows on Halloween leaking out of his body. There is no other gore. And despite this being a movie about rap and hip hop, there are about three (hilariously awful) raps, and everything else seems to be MIDIs from a '90s point-and-click horror game. This movie couldn't even get weed. In a lot of the scenes the actors are very clearly not smoking what's in their mouths (they don't exhale smoke), but when we get close-ups of blunt-rolling, well--look, I've been to college, and I know the difference between cannabis sativa and fucking chopped lettuce. Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

If you're a fan of such classics as Five Across the Eyes and The Tony Blair Witch Project, Hip Hop Locos is a treasure trove, a pot of gold at the end of your personal rainbow. It will probably take you slightly closer to eternal damnation, but hey, what's Halloween without that? The horror is, for now, on YouTube. Tread into its den...if'n you dare!

P.S./Fun Fact: When I was younger I thought this movie was a snuff film. I realize now that was a little dumb of me, but who knows...?

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