Snow

Let’s begin with a Q&A: you are driving in a blizzard in the middle of the night when someone steps in front of your vehicle. You avoid hitting him but damage your car’s radiator. The person you almost ran down is injured and incoherent and claims his child is lost in the snow. To make matters worse, he is acting suspiciously and you suspect he may not be telling the truth. It is the 21stcentury and you have a cell phone. What’s the first thing you do?

  1. Try to call the cops.
  2. Try to call the cops.
  3. Try to call the cops.
  4. Turn to the senior citizen you met a few hours ago at the airport and say – Just help me keep an eye on this guy, all right?

Over 90% of the population would answer A through C (it doesn’t matter which). If you answered D, you are a character in a horror novel and will die horribly.

Wait a second! Aren’t I being harsh here? Isn’t this a nitpick? Well, that depends on your tolerance level for horror tropes vs. normal human behavior. I will note that the Scooby Gang pull their vehicle out of a snowbank before one of the characters reaches for a cell phone (p. 41). Every minute they delay is time the police – who have the resources necessary to muster a manhunt – could be looking for the missing child, who turns out to be quite real.

Before I proceed any further with this review let me say that I think Mr. Malfi is a talented writer. I admire his writing style. He uses a lot of action verbs, he is a decent word painter, his pacing is good and his dialogue sounds realistic. I enjoyed his horror novel Little Girls, a homage to J-horror cinema with a smidgen of Peter Straub’s Julia mixed in. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy Snow. What didn’t work for me about this book? A lot of little things, but they added up.

My biggest issue is the fact that the plot and character arcs never merge. What am I talking about? I’ll use The Shining as an example. Danny Torrance has two problems in The Shining– his first problem is the fact that his family is falling apart (personal), the second is that they’ve moved into a haunted house (plot). At the end of The Shining, the plot and character arcs merge when Danny’s father becomes the haunted house’s monster.

This doesn’t occur in Snow. Todd Curry is a gambling addict, but what happens to him is the equivalent of a supernatural hit-and-run. Yes, he rolls the dice by renting that car, but he wants to see his son. I thought it was a stupid decision myself, but he made a promise to his child that he wanted to keep. Totally understandable.

I didn’t think Todd’s gambling problem was realistic. Let’s put aside the question of how it affects the plot. You’re telling me he put himself through law school by betting the horses? Really? I have bet on the ponies perhaps a half-dozen times in my life, and the best system I’ve ever seen comes courtesy of my great aunt. She would bet two dollars on the favorite to show, and invariably won her money back. She’d leave the track about five bucks richer. Somehow I doubt Todd used this system.

The logistics of Todd’s gambling problem are more troubling. If he lives in New York City, the nearest racetrack is in Yonkers (along with a casino). There is also a racetrack in Monticello, New York and East Rutherford, New Jersey. All three of these racetracks are closer than Atlantic City. Is this a nitpick? I live in this area, so no it’s not. Max Brooks hauled his ass to Yonkers to get the details right.

I’d argue that Todd’s gambling addiction is unnecessary to the plot. You could replace it with a thousand other character flaws and it would make no difference. The fact that Todd is a screw-up isn’t even reflected in the plot. He just wants to  visit his son, who isn’t mad at all about not seeing his dad for a year. Todd’s wife is a little angrier, but she gives him a leg massage at the book’s end so I’m guessing all is forgiven.

I didn’t buy Todd at all as a character. Usually male authors struggle writing women, but I thought Kate was much more realistic than Todd. She has boundary and intimacy issues because of her parents’ divorce, and they are the type of issues that don’t magically go away.

Todd’s phone call to his ex-wife is another one of those little things. Brianna lives in Iowa, so she knows about driving in the snow. Driving in that type of weather is stupid and dangerous, but all she says is that a good idea? It’s an awful idea and she knows it. If she cares at all about him they should argue about him venturing out into the snow.

Here’s another one: Todd gets hit in the head and wakes up. Twice. What normally happens if you get hit in the head is that you go into a coma and die. He also blacks out when they blow up the gas station and (assumedly) when he gets shot. He’s a tough guy.

Okay, I’ve made my point. Snow did not work for me. I will say that this book is chockful of examples of bad parenting, and you can view Molly shooting Todd at the end as karmic retribution for being a shitty parent. To me this doesn’t work, because Todd  wakes up (again!) and is greeted by his adoring wife and son.

 

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Triple Feature of Terror: John Carpenter’s The Thing!

Wilford Brimley was a versatile actor!

I have seen John Carpenter’s The Thing too many times to count, so at this point it’s tough to say how this movie affects me. I don’t even jump during the scary parts any more. However, I can tell you the way it affected me the first time I saw it.

I did not see The Thing in the theater. I saw it on HBO back in the mid-80’s. It was dinnertime, and I polished off a chicken pot pie while watching this movie. God’s honest truth, I didn’t eat chicken pot pie again for another decade.

When I rewatched The Thing this morning I ate toast with butter and strawberry jelly, and that went down much better. I’m not sure what to say at this point. Years ago, I read Alan Dean Foster’s movie novelization, and can still recall details of the author’s scientific explanations. The Thing internally blocks all oxygen to the brain, so the person suffers oxygen death. Even back then, I recognized a great example of handwavium when I saw it!

Let’s see…The Thing is the best remake of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness that’s ever been made. No offense to John W. Campbell, but the monster of this remake is a Shoggoth, right down to the eyes. I don’t know why Lovecraft the writer gets short shrift here, because he wrote some brilliant science fiction, and At the Mountains of Madness (which is science fiction) is one of the best things he’s ever written.

The Thing is an influential movie. Peter Watts wrote a sequel for Clarkesworld, which you can find here. There is a manga called Parasyte that uses the same concept, except the parasytes gobble up the person’s head and then control the body. The main character applies a tourniquet to his arm when the parasyte invades, so the lil’ bugger eats his arm instead and we have a symbiotic relationship. They should have made a sitcom!

What else…the effects are good. I liked the characters. I kept expecting Wilford Brimley to tell everyone to relax and dig into a hearty bowl of oatmeal. Garry, the head of the base, dyes his hair but leaves his snow white eyebrows untouched, which is a nice actor’s touch. And I loved MacReady’s sombrero! The characters don’t do too many stupid things until the end. The Thing itself is brilliant and almost certainly survived the final blast. The creature that attacks MacReady at the climax is the Dog Thing that escaped at the beginning of the film, not the Wilford Brimley Thing.

How can I not mention the original Thing, the best movie ever made about a blood-drinking space carrot? Carpenter must have liked the movie also, because that’s the flick the little kids in his movie Halloween are watching. Nowadays if a character in a horror movie watches a horror movie, it’s always The Night of the Living Dead.

Anyway…James Arness, who played the aforementioned bloodthirsty space carrot in the original Thing, also played the state trooper in the 50’s classic Them, the best movie ever made about giant ants. Why do I mention this? Because it’s the third and final link in the Web of Nostradamus!™ The original Them starts with the image of a young girl walking down the highway clutching a doll, and James Cameron recycles the same image in Aliens, his sequel to Alien. Guess he liked the movie too!

Triple Feature of Terror: An American Werewolf in London!

Today I am going to reach into my treasure trove of childhood memories and treat you to a wonderful story. In the summer of 1981 I was thirteen years old and commercials for An American Werewolf in London were playing all over the TV. I wanted to see this movie very badly. My parents watched the TV commercials, one of which featured a voice-over by 70’s radio personality Wolfman Jack, and thought An American Werewolf in London was a comedy.

Long story short, the three of us made the trek to the movie theater in Port Jervis NY, now long gone. My mother fled during the scene in the moors. I bolted when the deformed Nazi monsters massacred David and his family. We weren’t the only ones to leave, not by a long shot. A small crowd huddled in the lobby, shell-shocked. A young woman whose date stayed behind burst through the theater doors, muttering “holy shit.” Quite a night for the Galuschak family!

I’m happy to report that my father watched the entire movie. He never said so, but I think he was disappointed by our lack of fortitude. Anyway…I rewatched An American Werewolf in London this evening. Technical difficulties prevented me from seeing it during my snow day. Since this is about my 80 zillionth viewing of the movie, it’s not exactly a terrifying experience anymore.

What does a person notice when s/he is watching a movie for the 80 zillionth time? A few things. When David calls home near the movie’s end he gives the operator a NYC area code. During the subway chase scene, I amused myself by looking at the ads on the wall, and saw an advertisement for See You Next Wednesday. This is of course the porn movie playing at the theatre David and Meatloaf Jack visit when they discuss his suicide. The first time we meet David and Jack they are in a truck full of sheep, and soon afterwards they visit a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb (I got this one from the interview I linked to); as director John Landis says, the symbolism ain’t exactly subtle.

What else? During the end credits Lycanthrope Productions congratulates Prince Charles and Lady Di on their wedding. Frank Oz, the voice of Miss Piggy in the Muppet Show, makes a cameo (along with Miss Piggy) as the American guy from the embassy who doesn’t like the young people.

The English apparently use I find you extremely attractive as a pick-up line; Alex says it three or four times, as so does the middle-aged protagonist of Vampyres, a 70’s Eurotrash movie about a pair of female vampires who lure middle-aged men to their castle, kill them and then carefully pose their naked bodies in their cars so that it’ll look like a car accident. Watch out for all those nude drivers in England!

I don’t think I’m reaching when I say An American Werewolf in London is the best werewolf movie ever made. It’s funny, it’s gory and the makeup effects are wonderful. You can make an argument for the original Wolf Man, I guess, but how many people have even seen that movie? There’s The Woofen – I mean The Wolfen – an underrated gem worth watching just to see Albert Finney treat the world to his version of a New York accent. Maybe The Howling? Please. None of these movies have the crazy energy of An American Werewolf in London. None of them measure up. None of them will ever measure up. I’ve been disappointed in every werewolf movie I’ve ever seen after this one.

An American Werewolf in London is not a comedy. It’s a horror movie with comedic elements. Don’t believe me? That’s what director John Landis says in the interview I linked to. Of course this is a horror movie. Did the people who say this movie is a comedy even watch it? Although maybe the young people think it’s a comedy. When I saw the second theatrical release of The Exorcist a few years ago the movie theater was full of young people, and they were all laughing their asses off.

Anyway…here is the second part of the Web of Nostradamus™. An American Werewolf in London is a werewolf movie, just like The Wolfen. Whitley Strieber wrote The Wolfen; he also wrote The Hunger, the movie version of which was directed by Tony Scott, the brother of Alien director Ridley Scott. By the way, The Wolfen is a pretty damn good novel. Whitley Strieber made his name writing about people being probed by aliens, but he’s penned some decent classic horror novels also.

I don’t think I ever thanked my parents for taking me to see An American Werewolf in London, which is one of my all-time favorite horror movies. Thank you, sorry this is thirty-seven years late. These dumb-ass kids, they never appreciate anything you do for them!

 

Triple Feature of Terror: A Review of Alien!

ALF

I begin this review with an announcement: I have seen Alien about 82 times. Alien is one of my favorite horror movies, but at this point I’m a wee bit sick of it, so I will try a different format for this review. There will be almost no plot summary at all.

Announcement #2: it’s snowing today, and I’m stuck in my apartment, so I had the wonderful idea to watch Alien, An American Werewolf in London and The Thing all at once. A Triple Feature of Terror! Later in this review I will discuss the mystical ties that bind these movies together. I call these ties the Web of Nostradamus™, but that’s another story.

The first thing that struck me on my 83rd rewatch of Alien was how tight the screenplay is in places. This movie was written by Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the screenplay for the underrated Dead and Buried. He also wrote and directed The Return of the Living Dead, THE GREATEST ZOMBIE MOVIE OF ALL TIME. If you want to know the origin of the belief that zombies crave brains, watch this movie.

What do I mean about a tight screenplay? When the crewmembers of the Nostromo check out the SOS, which is actually a warning, Dallas (the Captain) needs three crewmembers to investigate the signal. He can’t use the engineering crew, who normally get all the shit jobs, because they are busy repairing the landing ship. He also can’t use the Science Officer (Ash), because the movie later makes it clear that the science officer is the most important member of the crew. That leaves him, the second in command (Kane), the third in the command (Ripley) and the navigator (Lambert).

Dallas should have sent Ripley with Kane and Lambert; instead he pulls a Captain Kirk and goes himself. This is a good character moment for a minor player, showing us that Dallas isn’t a very good captain and foreshadowing his decision to send himself crawling through the air ducts. The screenplay hints that maybe Dallas has an unspoken thing for Ripley, who offers to go crawling through the air ducts. Dallas goes in her place.

But there’s more! O’Bannon damages the landing ship so that the two crewmembers most likely to be sent on the rescue mission will be unavailable. He also sets up the Ash/Ripley conflict; when Ash overrides Ripley’s decision to not let the crewmembers back into the landing ship, it creates tension between these two characters that pays off later in the movie. All of this is set up by the composition of a simple scouting party. I have a ton of respect for the level of thought that went behind this scene.

Of course, the second half of Alien plays things a lot looser. That’s because this movie starts as a science fiction movie and ends up as horror movie, and the final hour plays by horror tropes. I particularly enjoyed the sequence when Ripley, who earlier refused to let her fellow crewmembers onto the ship because it violated quarantine, risks her life to hunt down her cat Jonesy, who spends most of the movie scaring the shit out of the crew. Knowing cats as I do, I think it’s possible that Jonesy and the alien were working together.

I watched Alien with my own cat, and sensed his approval during the feline rescue sequence. When Jonesy appeared onscreen he pawed at the screen and then peered behind the television, searching for the interloper. I have friends who assure me this is a sign of great intelligence in felines, although I have my doubts. I once had to stop my cat from eating a garbage bag.

Speaking of stupid: people sure do stupid things in the second half of this movie. Besides cat chasing, we have characters splitting up, Dallas confronting the alien in the air ducts (he wins a Darwin Award!) and the crewmembers leaving the door to the medical facilities wide open when the face-hugger vanishes.

One of the most problematic scenes in Alien is when Ripley – who is portrayed as a strong, tough-minded woman (weakness for cats aside) – strips down to her underwear. I’m sure director Ridley Scott would tell you he needed this scene because it sets up the sequence when Ripley dons the spacesuit (which wouldn’t fit with her clothes on, I guess) and ejects the alien into space. Yeah, right.

Alien is a visually striking movie. Yes, there are the H.R. Giger call-outs, but this film also contains all sorts of weird phallic imagery, from Ash’s white blood to the alien itself, which is a walking phallus. One of the movie’s more bizarre scenes is when Ash tries to kill Ripley by jamming a pornographic magazine down her throat. Perhaps he’s imitating the face-hugger, which shoves a tube down its victim’s throat. Or maybe there’s an even stranger reason. I don’t want to know.

I know you’ve all been waiting for this, so here is the first Web of Nostradamus™ that mystically binds all these movies together. The novelizations for Alien and The Thing were both written by Alan Dean Foster, who has the same middle name as actor Harry Dean Stanton, who spends most of Alien smoking unidentified substances and looking like he doesn’t know where the hell he is.

Movie Review: The Night of the Living Dead

People Arguing

I admit that I was not looking forward to rewatching The Night of the Living Dead. I last saw this movie a number of years ago, and can recall being glad that I wouldn’t have to watch it again. So I came prepared, opening my iPhone to Pokemon Go and preparing for ninety-five minutes of zombies and culling unwanted Pokemon.

The Pokemon cull did not go as planned. To make a long story short, I really enjoyed this movie. Yes, I know what I said about zombies in my review of World War Z, but The Night of the Living Dead subverts expectations. When I started watching, this movie’s look and music lulled me into thinking it might be just another B-horror film. It isn’t.

The plot: Barbara and her brother Johnny drive to their father’s grave. Contrary to expectations, neither of them is the protagonist. Johnny dies in the first ten minutes, slain by a zombie. The fact that these zombies don’t eat brains is another interesting twist; they are cannibals in the traditional sense, feasting on the flesh of the living.

Barbara ends up in a seemingly abandoned house, where we meet the movie’s hero. Ben boards up the doors and windows as more zombies arrive. We learn that the newly dead are reanimating. A space shuttle to Venus and high levels of radiation – both staples of 1950’s science fiction – are mentioned as possible causes. It’s another trick. The authorities have no clue why the dead are rising, and the movie never tells us.

Ben and Barbara eventually meet the people hiding in the house’s basement. Tom and Judy are a nice young couple. Harry Cooper isn’t so nice. He has a wife, who doesn’t seem to like him much, and a sick child. More zombies arrive. Instead of working together the survivors bicker, another subversion of expectations and a reminder of the unofficial motto of The Walking Dead (see image above).

Our heroes try to escape. If this was a conventional horror movie, they might succeed. Instead they fail miserably. The remaining survivors are more interested in killing each other than the zombies. The violence is graphic; our heroes die horribly. Harry’s child reanimates and kills her mother. A few of the zombies are naked, and we see them feasting on viscera and intestines. Ben hides in the basement. When the rescue team arrives in the morning they mistakenly shoot him in the head, which is the movie’s final twist. The end.

The Night of the Living Dead is a groundbreaking movie. Duane Jones, the man who plays Ben, was the first African American actor to be cast as the lead in a mainstream American horror movie (according to IMDB). The ‘rescue’ party at the end comes complete with barking dogs, and would be a familiar sight to television news watchers of the 1960’s; all that’s missing are the fire hoses.

This movie is also an interesting case study on how people react under stress. The answer is, not too well. Barbara goes into shock, which is realistic. Harry Cooper is scared shitless, which makes him do stupid things. It doesn’t matter, because the people who keep their heads die also.

I liked The Night of the Living Dead a lot more than I expected. The acting is good,  the screenplay is tight and there’s plenty of action. The film’s visceral subject matter was shocking for the 1960’s, and a few of the scenes still pack a punch today. Overall, this movie deserves every bit of praise it gets as a horror classic.

I Hate Zombies, So Why Did I Like This Book? Max Brooks’ World War Z

World War Z

Besides being the best zombie book I’ve ever read, World War Z is also a great horror novel. Please note that this comes from a person who doesn’t like zombies (more on that later). I read World War Z for the first time over a decade ago. I bought the book at my local B&N because I liked the cover. Yes, sometimes I buy books because I like the cover, and the results are often surprisingly good. When I recommended World War Z to a friend he loved it, and asked me where I’d heard of it. When I told him how much I liked the cover he gave me a strange look.

Anyway: I reread World War Z last week. I realized I was reading a great book when Mr. Brooks informed me that those who transformed into zombies while driving have no idea how to unbuckle their seatbelts, and are thus stuck in their cars for all eternity. Great detail. I have relatives who live in Yonkers, and the author’s description of that city is dead-on, down to the A&P (which is now an ACME). What can you do but tip your hat to such attention to detail?

I won’t even go into Mr. Brooks’ masterful description of other cultures, the way he puts the zombie apocalypse into a socioeconopolitical (is that a word?) perspective and his successful use of over twenty different voices, all of which sounded distinct. After all, this is an oral history of the zombie wars, and the survivors interviewed all have riveting stories to tell.

Speaking of telling stories, I have no idea why Max Brooks (who is filmmaker Mel Brooks’ son) hasn’t written another horror novel. Besides his zombie material (three books), he wrote a graphic novel called The Harlem Hellfighters, a comic series titled The Extinction Parade and a Minecraft novel. It’s a damn shame Mr. Brooks hasn’t followed up, because World War Z puts him in the pantheon of great horror writers of my generation.

I was surprised by how much I liked this book, because as a rule I don’t like zombie novels. I can tolerate zombie movies if they are funny (Return of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead) or have an interesting twist (28 Days Later, Pontypool), but I don’t like reading about them.

Actually, I don’t like zombies period. I have trouble taking a monster that combines the speed of a grandpa on his walker with the motor skills of an overstimulated toddler seriously. Here’s an idea: why not wear a winter jacket and three pairs of snow pants if you’re scared of being bitten?

Yes, you may say, but there’s millions of the undead! True, but there are billions of the living. Many of my fellow humans have been stockpiling baked beans and guns for years, eagerly awaiting the day civilization collapses so that they can declare themselves the Lords of Weehawken, N.J. That’s truly terrifying. And I’m supposed to be scared of a smelly corpse?

How did there get to be millions of zombies anyway? I’m going to guess it went something like this:

  1. The first zombie searches for a hearty meal of brains.
  2. ???
  3. Earth is overrun by zombies!

Another reason I don’t like zombies is because they are so unhealthy. Zombies crave brains, which are high in cholesterol and can also cause you to contract kuru, the human version of Mad Cow Disease. Yes, I know zombies are dead and thus don’t care about their cholesterol levels, but that just proves another point. Zombies are dead but they don’t rot, because don’t think about it. If zombies were subject to the Law of Conservation of Energy, they would not even have the strength to shamble, unless the zombie in question was getting three square meals of brains per day. It would probably take more calories than that, but whatever.

Anyway… apologies to any of my classmates who love zombies. I’m sorry for hating on your favorite monster; I know my favorite monsters are just as unrealistic. I’m guessing my dislike stems from working retail for years. Give me a horde of bloodthirsty zombies over a mob of last-minute shoppers on Christmas Eve any day!