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.

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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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Monday, October 23, 2017

The Butcher (1990), by Maik Ude



It was uncannily difficult to find a '90s movie for Spookyween, as I've already exhausted almost every site-appropriate horror movie from the '90s that I like. I feel that says something about the '90s. At this stage in my life I'm generally disdainful of every decade of the 20th Century but strangely it is the decade of my birth that I have the least pity for. There's no such thing as a universal statement (save for perhaps "water is wet," "Nazis are bastards," etc.), but in the '90s, comics were bad, movies were bad, music was bad, TV had some decent things going for it but also Full House existed so it too was bad. I just don't like the '90s.

The first thing is that the '90s had a...weird sense of masculinity. Don't get me wrong--the older I get, the more I realize how truly weird mainstream expressions of masculinity have been in all stages of history. But when I think the '90s, I see covers for Rob Liefeld comics and Manowar albums. I see tons of big men with big guns on army recruitment posters. I see cartoon characters kicking the crap out of anthropomorphic cartoon drug dealers. And, I think of slasher movies that exist primarily to show what the inside of a human body looks like. Now, the thing is, gore movies have existed since the early '60s--Blood Feast and The Flesh Eaters are testaments to that. But by the '90s, there were even fewer censors than ever before, even if everyone was freaking out about Satanic child abuse in kindergartens for some reason. Things got daaark, man. And that is what brings us to The Butcher. Made by the young, The Butcher is an indulgence in the same ultra-masculine obsession with slasher movie violence that motivated Maik Ude's fellow German Andreas Schnaas. Yet, this is the sort of movie Schnaas thinks he's making--and unlike Schnaas's masturbatory exercises, The Butcher manages to give us people to root for amidst all the gut-spilling.

In a pre-credits sequence, we see a man has been kidnapped and brought to a dark basement. He is awoken by a stream of piss in his face. He has been captured by the Butcher, a greasy-looking asshole dressed in leather gloves and a genuinely unsettling pillow-case mask (think Bruce without his swimming goggles). The Butcher saws his head off and remove his guts. Later, two dudes decide to go on a fishing trip and stumble across the head of what we can presume to be the victim of the opening scene. When trying to escape they are taken in by an old woman who is revealed to--I think--be the mother of the Butcher. Thus begins many days of horror for the two men as they are subjected to the Butcher's madness.

In case you can't tell, there's virtually nothing to this plot-wise--and not just because I don't speak German and this movie lacks subtitles. Despite this, by giving us two protagonists with a hobby, and taking time to detail that hobby (even if it's dull), it gives us a reason to want to follow them and the plot that moves around them. Is--is this what I've been reduced to? Celebrating the fact that a movie's characters fish? Ah well. They have fun and for some reason I like seeing them have fun. Probably 'cause I've seen this before, and because it's called The Butcher. These characters are going to end up getting seriously mutilated, so let them have their fun while it lasts. I realize it's strange to single this movie out above all others for a remark like that, but maybe there is actual credence to the idea that a slasher movie becomes more compelling when the victims are likable...

The movie did dedicate more time to plot than I remember, but make no mistake: this movie's primary concern was grotesquery. Much like West of Zanzibar, there's a heavy focus on visuals that are just meant to squick us out. It's par for the course stuff, but you better believe my 16-year-old self would've loved to put decapitations and rotting corpses as gross as the ones these kids pulled off in the movies I was making way back when. Budget is optimized, even if it shows--and the script, from what I can understand of it, is pretty tight as well. They even give us a sad old grandmother for one of the protagonists to make us feel super bad about what happen to him. Even if he does look like German Adam Sandler.

Let's talk about the Butcher himself. A simple design can go a long way: I mentioned the freaky pillow case mask (which you can always see his glinting gross rat teeth through), and the leather gloves, but there's something about a bloodsoaked leather apron that freak me out. No gimmicks here, but you know for sure that if the Butcher catches you, you are fucked. Oh, and just to be safe, he's also a cannibal. I'll take brutal efficiency when it's as appealing as this.

Even through the grossness, though, and the surprising professionalism, there are some little trashy leaks which made me smile extra hard. The opening credits are weirdly similar to those from I Am Here...Now. People refuse to mourn or even scream when their friends are violently tortured and killed in front of them. And, due to the aforementioned subtitle-less German audio, my limited German interacts with the movie in amazing ways, like when I get to pick out lines like, "Oh, scheisse! Das ist ein kidnappinghaus!"

The Butcher is probably, along with West of Zanzibar, the Spookyween movie I recommend the least. It's particularly hard to find, and aside from some chilling effects and a touch of real talent, it's not too dissimilar from other slasher movies made by teens. Still, I enjoy it quite a bit whenever I throw it on, and it would make a great double feature with Plaga Zombie--which would have been our '90s Spookyween entry if someone hadn't jumped the gun...

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Friday, October 20, 2017

A Night to Dismember (1983), by Doris Wishman



I have called Carlos Tobalina "The Man," but Doris Wishman puts even him to shame. She was a director like no other, a pioneer not merely for being a woman in the mid 20th Century who ended up with the sort of career usually only obtainable and usually only wanted by men, but for being also something of an underground artist. She threw flourish and flair into 42nd Street sleaze with a style suggesting even she herself was unsure of what she was accomplishing with such. This attention to color and romance and drama was always contrasted with a hilarious feeling of slack laziness and rushed cheapness. And of course, Wishman was always as viciously exploitative as her male counterparts, if not moreso. While Wishman usually made sexploitation flicks intended to show off big boobs (or sometimes, to mix things up a bit, absurdly big boobs), A Night to Dismember was her attempt to cash in on the slasher movie craze rising from the hot freshness of Friday the 13th and, from a little earlier, Halloween. The result was doubtlessly bizarre to begin with, but then something very unusual happened. Someone tried to destroy the movie's print, and nearly succeeded--and this did not deter Wishman. She slowly reconstructed the film from what remained, using dubs and "clever" editing to hide the holes. Or, so she claimed: there's really only one bit of solid evidence that I know of to substantiate this. But just remember, even if this didn't happen, every frame of this movie definitely feels like it did. Remember that well!

The Kent family has lived in the small town of Woodmire Lake for 70 years. However, one October night in 1986 (I'll get to that, don't worry), the Kents were all killed in some manner. (The movie says all its death happen in one night, and that's bullshit, but again, I'll get to it.) Phineas Kent and his two beautiful daughters were slaughtered, and Broderick Kent killed himself after slaying his wife for insurance money. That left Adam Kent, his wife, and their three children, Billy, Mary, and Vicky. Vicky for all intents and purposes is our protagonist--five years prior, she was sent to a mental hospital for killing two boys. However, she's since reformed and recover, and she spends the movie with everyone around her, including and especially her family, fully expecting her to crumble back into homicidal insanity. Billy and Mary in particular want to keep all their parents' affections for themselves (despite looking old enough to have at least one grad degree), and as such forge an increasingly ludicrous string of stunts to frame Vicky and/or drive her nuts, including dressing up like a waterbound zombie and later some kind of green-skinned old man. Of course, there are also some killings going on which make it look mighty probable Billy and Mary won't need to frame their sister for murder. Detective Tim O'Malley is on the case, but will he figure things out before it's too late?

Most if not all of the plot of this movie is told via voiceover. This is because all the stuff that would normally forward the plot was destroyed in a fire...again, ostensibly. The possibility remains that all of the madness that dances across A Night to Dismember's 68 minutes was made on purpose, but even Wishman was too embarrassed to move forward without proper apologia in place. Listening to this voiceover shows a shakiness that has rarely been paralleled in other movies I've seen. Even if there wasn't a warbling delivery to it I'd still be agog at editing that leaves us with the line, "The Kents lived in Woodmire Lake for 70 years. Then, all of the Kents were dead." "Manic" is the word I wrote down to describe it, and I can't think of anything better. There are so many cuts in this film there's a special Death named after them. The tone, speed, and diction of a character's line will change at random, and there's beloved celebration of the old Coleman Francis trick of keeping everyone's mouth out of frame. Once we reach the axe murders all hell breaks loose, and the swiftness and repetition of the cuts nears artfulness. The "bong" sound that sometimes announces the appearance of Chesty Morgan's tits in Deadly Weapons makes a shocking reappearance, to the point of insanity. And there are "chase" scenes made of the same two or three shots looped endlessly.

As I said in my review for Frozen Scream, I'm positive that Thomas McGowan, who plays Kevin McGuire in that film, also plays Tim O'Malley, who is mysteriously uncredited both on IMDB and in A Night to Dismember's end credits themselves. O'Malley supplies the bizarre opening voiceover which summarizes the deaths of both Phineas and Broderick Kent's families in four minutes, as though this film was a sequel to movies about those murders. Then, he dates Vicky's killing of the neighborhood boys to "August of 1981," but also "five years ago." Remember this movie was released in 1983. Either the actor flubbed his line, the editing made him flub his line, or Wishman meant for this movie to be set in the future. Similarly, it's worth commenting on the fact that O'Malley insists the events of this all take place in one day, which I assume is meant to explain why Adam Kent never learns about the massacre of his family. But I'm sure we go through at least one day/night cycle. All of this just contributes to the sheer strangeness that this movie is ridden with.

Now, regarding the chance that there was another version of this movie: I believe it, and I think the trailer proves it. The trailer is a trip in itself, and it fortunately features a spooky narrator who tells us the story of the movie he's advertising. Except in this version, Mary Kent has no siblings, and is apparently assaulted in some form by a disfigured stranger--this encounter leaves her with psychic powers (!), which she uses to slaughter her family. Then, years later, Vicky Manuel moves into the former Kent home, where she begins having psychic visions of the murders. If you've been reading this review in any capacity you can tell that that is a totally different movie. Add in the fact that this trailer features a ton of footage completely unseen in the finished cut and I think the tales are true. This would explain one shot I've noticed in the final movie where one of Vicky's relatives is running towards a car saying, through dub, "Hurry up, dear, it's going to rain!" The shot is slowed down to make it seem less frantic but it's clearly a shot of people running in panic; the person speaking is looking over her shoulder and screaming. They just dubbed right over and hoped no one would notice. I would love to see the original version of this film (I do have to wonder why Wishman didn't make use of the "lost" footage present in the absolutely-extant trailer), but I'm also infinitely pleased with what we ended up with.

A Night to Dismember is one of my favorite movies of all time and I will say no more of it, due to my deathless hopes that more people will see and find fondness for it. I don't want to compare films to Troll 2, The Room, or, God forbid, Birdemic, but if you need a new great bad movie, this is it. It is nothing short of a miracle in filmmaking, which we can all learn from. Here's to Doris.

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