Relic!

I read Relic back in the early 1990’s. It turns out that I have watched and/or read much of the material for this course. The rub is, I don’t remember a lot of it! I recall reading Relic, but I have no recollection of the actual contents of the book. Years ago, I thought it was funny when my dad didn’t remember seeing a movie he’d watched six months ago; now that I’m in the same boat, it’s not so funny.

I almost gave up on Relic after the first chapter, which is a veritable cornucopia of clichés. Whittlesey is part of a disastrous expedition in the Amazon Basin. I couldn’t decide whether Whittlesey knows that he’s a character in a horror novel and just wants to collect his paycheck, or if he took too many blows to the head in the high school chess club.

What am I talking about? Let’s see: 1. Whittlesey’s companion vanishes mysteriously when they are researching a feared tribe that worships a satanic lizard-ape. 2. The hair of Whittlesey’s native guide turns white when they 3. enter a hut full of shattered human skulls. When Whittlesey decides to soldier on alone in search of his companion, my eyes were rolling so hard I’m surprised they didn’t spin out of my head.

What saves Relic is the American Museum of Natural History. Fun fact: for about six months in the 1990’s when my OCD was really bad I would drive into New York City every weekend, park my car and walk around the AMNH. I visited the galleries in a certain order. I don’t recall what order anymore. I liked the Hall of African Mammals, the Arthur Ross Hall of The Meteorites and anything to do with the dinosaurs.

Anyway: I spent a lot of time at the American Museum of Natural History, and so did one of the authors – I’m betting Mr. Preston –because he does a wonderful job describing the ins and outs of the building. He goes behind the scenes of the museum, bringing to life the people who work there and the weird jobs they have, the crap that’s been sitting untouched in the basement since the 1930’s and the museum politics. These descriptions are what kept me reading.

The plot is fairly boilerplate with a few twists thrown in. We have Margo, the likable graduate student; Lieutenant D’Agosta, the hard-boiled cop with a heart of gold; Smithback, the hard-boiled newspaperman with a heart of gold; the crazy scientist; and the Museum Cabal, a group of administrators who cover up a murder. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Agent Cooper – I mean Agent Mulder – I mean Agent Pendergast.

Agent Pendergast has godlike powers. Reading this book, I formed the unbreakable conviction that this dude is good at EVERYTHING. I have no doubt he could whip up a Roast Duck a ‘lOrange for a dinner party at a moment’s notice and know what side of the plate the fork goes on. When the Museum Monster – who may have something to do with that disastrous expedition – develops a taste for tourist brains, Pendergast takes over the investigation because the murders are similar to – oh well, don’t think too much about it. What’s important is that he’s here!

There are two big plot twists in Relic. I assumed the crates from the expedition were full of monster eggs, but I was wrong. They are the monster’s food source, which sounds good until you realize that the contents of those crates kept the monster satiated for years – which means it’s a herbivore, right? No, it also eats rats and tourist brains which means it’s an omnivore!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a reliable website listing the nutritional contents of a rat on Google. If I do find anything, rest assured I’ll update immediately. Let’s assume the Museum Monster needs to consume 10,000 calories per day to do his monstering duties. That adds up to a lot of rats. No wonder it switched to tourists.

Despite the monster’s new diet, the Museum Cabal goes ahead with the opening of their prized exhibit, which I have no problem with plot-wise. They’re rich and powerful, and such people usually get their way. The actual opening of the exhibit is a disaster, requiring the coordinated snafus of many incompetent people to pull off.

The plot dashes on. Bullets bounce off the Museum Monster’s skull! Pendergast turns out to be a crack shot! The scientist I thought was going to turn out be crazy doesn’t turn out to be crazy! The FBI agent who takes charge after Pendergast ends up being transferred to Waco, which may or may not be a tasteless joke on the authors’ part. There’s also the second plot twist, which is pretty clever.

All in all, Relic is an entertaining read. If you like the American Museum of Natural History, it’s a must read!

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The Blob

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I saw the remake of The Blob in the movie theatre in the summer of 1988 and reviewed it for my weekly school newspaper, The Rutgers Review. Unfortunately, I don’t have any exciting stories to tell about my moviegoing experience because I don’t remember anything about the movie.

Wait, that’s not true! Del Close, who plays the crazy preacher, co-wrote a DC comic with John Ostrander called Wasteland. John Ostrander happens to be my favorite comic writer of all time. He wrote The Suicide Squad and Grimjack, a wonderful comic nobody today has ever heard of. This gives you, the reader, two pieces of important information. 1. I was predisposed to like The Blob. 2. I was a comic nerd decades before it became fashionable.

I don’t recall if I enjoyed The Blob on my first viewing because I can’t find my original review and my memories of it are sketchy. Since I had no desire to revisit this movie, I’m assuming I didn’t think much of it. I do recall being surprised when football dude bites the dust. I also remember the scene when football guy and his friend go into the drugstore to buy rubbers – does anyone say rubbers anymore? Fun fact: that’s what we used to call condoms in New Jersey back in the 1980’s. And that’s about all I do remember.

The thing that struck me most on rewatching The Blob was Kevin Dillon’s magnificent mane of hair, which I’m not sure qualifies as a mullet. Maybe it left such a strong impression on me because I’m slowly losing my own hair. I also thought Shawnee Smith was very good. She almost takes out the Blob herself before getting her foot stuck in – what? What the hell was that? A foot-trapper?

The scene where the girl passes out in the car was really unpleasant to watch. In general, the tone of The Blob is way off. The word I would use is squicky. This might have been a decent PG-13 movie, but it just doesn’t work as an R-rated movie. The gory parts of The Blob are gross, yes, but not in a good way. They’re just gross. These are the kind of effects you’d see in a body horror movie like Dave Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly.

This just isn’t a very good movie. It’s been forgotten for a reason. Most of the effects are laughably cheesy, which clashes with the ultra-gross scenes when the Blob eats people. The screenplay is full of holes. Why would the U.S. government fire bacteria into outer space when they can simulate outer space conditions in a bunker in Roswell, New Mexico? Why would sewer guy in the white containment-suit have a rocket launcher strapped to his back?

The characters are clichés. We have the local yokel cop, the cheerleader, the jock, the burnout (an 80’s phrase!) with a heart of gold – incidentally, I didn’t think Kevin Dillon’s character had a heart of gold. I thought he was a dickhead (another 80’s phrase!).

That being said, I liked both the leads. It’s not their fault they got stuck in The Blob. The screenplay has a couple of surprise deaths and thus isn’t totally predictable. I do enjoy watching horror movies where it feels like anyone can die. I was also happy that they weren’t madly kissing at the end of the movie. After seeing this movie, I didn’t feel like kissing – I felt vaguely queasy.

Three stories from H.P. Lovecraft: Pickman’s Model, The Outsider and The Call of Cthulhu

I first read Lovecraft when I was eight years old, where I learned exciting new words like gibbous, eldritch and tentacles. This morning, upon rereading The Call of Cthulhu, I discovered another new word: vigintillion. As in, it happened a vigintillion years ago. I’m always learning!

Lovecraft has made an indelible mark on popular culture. He is also a controversial figure. If you don’t know why and are interested, Googling Lovecraft WFA is a good place to start. Deconstructing Lovecraft has become a popular pastime nowadays. Victor LaValle wrote a short novel called The Ballad of Black Tom, based on the Lovecraft short story The Horror at Red Hook. Matt Ruff wrote a novel called Lovecraft Country. Both books are worth reading.

There’s no question that Lovecraft was a groundbreaking science fiction writer. The names of his entities are jaw-breakers (Nyarlathotep! Cthulhu!), but he avoids science fiction jargon like vidscreen and medbot and most of his stories take place on Earth. Some of his best works – The Color out of Space and At the Mountains of Madness come to mind –  are grounded in the real world.

On the flip side, Lovecraft’s writing style is overly ornate and wordy. His stories contain almost no dialogue. I never found his horror fiction scary because I never connected with his characters, who have nothing going on below the waist and are seemingly always teetering on the brink of madness. At his worst, Lovecraft is prone to hyperbole; his unimaginable horrors are pretty imaginable.

I reread the three stories for the assignment this morning. Pickman’s Model was my favorite of the trio. This is a story with a creepy vibe and an interesting setting. I like the fact that Lovecraft mentions artists of that time period; Pickman’s final painting is straight out of Goya. The final twist isn’t much of a twist, but it’s decently done.

Pickman’s Model also illustrates one of the themes that runs through Lovecraft’s work: fear of the other. Lovecraft is very specific about who the other is; besides monsters with incomprehensible names, he seems to believe that human evil has its origins in poor genetics based along racial lines. This is a staple of the eugenics movement. Although most people think Nazi Germany when they hear eugenics, it is worth noting that a number of states in this country used to have forced sterilization programs.

The Outsider encapsulates and internalizes Fear of the Other. This is the short story one is most likely to encounter in horror anthologies that don’t specialize in Lovecraft. It is short, and although overly wordy, has a nice twist ending that may seem commonplace to readers of today. I learned another new word in this story: nepenthe!

The Call of Cthulhu is a mess. Bloated and overlong, it reads like it’s been cut and pasted together. Cthulhu is powerful enough to destroy worlds but is foiled when a steam yacht rams him. I had difficulty reading this all the way through. It is ironic that Cthulhu is the monster most people remember Lovecraft for, when he wrote much better stories.

A final note: Lovecraft corresponded with many people during the course of his life, so his personal views are no secret. Although he was not the only speculative fiction author of those times to hold problematic views, Lovecraft’s attitudes informed his fiction. I wasn’t sure if I should include this in my review. Over the years I have read and enjoyed many of Lovecraft’s stories and when I learned of his personal beliefs it made me stop and reassess his works, which I believe is a good thing. I think we as writers can learn things from Lovecraft, but at this point I do have difficulty separating the writer from the person. For better or worse, this review reflects that.

Godzilla (2014 remake)

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Vintage 1974 MechaGodzilla Action Figure!

Once again, I am going to reach into my seemingly endless store of treasured movie-going memories to tell you about watching the 1998 remake of Godzilla. Yes, I know this review is about the 2014 remake…stick with me. You can’t imagine how excited I was for Godzilla 1998. Despite disturbing rumors about the creature designs, I had high hopes for this movie. Perhaps Godzilla would even eat Matthew Broderick, whom I’ve hated with an unholy passion since Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

To commemorate what was sure to be a wonderful evening, I smuggled my Godzilla action figure (not pictured above) into the theater to watch the movie with me. This upset my roommate, who seemed to think it would ruin his chance to impress the girls in the seats next to us. How could he be thinking about girls? This was Godzilla!

Anyway, Godzilla 1998 was utter shit.

This is to say that I went into the 2014 remake of Godzilla with lowered expectations…and I enjoyed it. I give this movie a B. I believe I’ve seen every Godzilla film ever made, so this puts it squarely into the solid category. Not a classic, but pretty good. When I rewatched the movie this morning I had the same impression.

Yes, I enjoyed Godzilla, but that doesn’t meant it’s a very good movie. When our hero, MR. EVERYMAN, saves the child from toppling off the train, I thought there’s the movie’s save-the-cat moment. I wasn’t surprised to learn Godzilla had multiple screenwriters because it has a cut and paste feel.

Most of the movie’s characters are clichés, the peacenik scientist, the nuke-crazy general, the conspiracy theory nut. Our protagonist, MR. EVERYMAN, doesn’t have a personality. MRS. EVERYMAN doesn’t get upset when her husband’s nutso father calls and summons him to Japan. THEIR ADORABLE CHILD is a set-piece. By the way, after Bryan Cranston’s crazy daddy character bites the dust, MRS. EVERYMAN and THEIR ADORABLE CHILD become the movie’s MacGuffin. It’s better than being the hostage object, I guess.

MR. EVERYMAN travels to Japan to help his father. Or perhaps he’s hoping his father will teach him how to have a personality. Or maybe one night of domestic bliss was enough for him. Who knows? To me, this was one of the most unbelievable things about the movie. Bryan Cranston is a grown man, a trespassing offense isn’t all that serious and it’s obvious he doesn’t really give a shit about his son. Plus, he’s crazy.

Here’s the thing about Bryan Cranston’s character: he is nuts. Yes, it turns out that he was right, but that doesn’t mean he’s not nuts. This is the type of person who would walk into a public library and ask to see the government’s secret files on the JFK assassination. Godzilla gets a lot less interesting when he dies and his cardboard cutout son shoulders the load as the movie’s protagonist.

So what did I notice in this viewing of Godzilla? I talked about phallic imagery in Alien. This movie has phallic imagery, also, and some of it is quite disturbing. Example A: the way Godzilla kills the female MUTO is pretty, uhm…yikes.

Abandonment is a recurring theme in Godzilla. Bryan Cranston abandons his wife to die in a nuclear reactor, MR. EVERYMAN abandons his wife and child to go to Japan and the parents in Hawaii abandon their child in the train. The only good husband and parent in this movie is MR. MUTO, who sticks by his woman and gets squashed against a skyscraper for his troubles.

Godzilla is a great-looking movie. Garth Edwards, the director, wears his Steven Spielberg cufflinks on his sleeve, but there are some genuinely riveting scenes. I’m thinking of Hawaii and the San Francisco bridge. My favorite interview with Mr. Edwards features him telling the interviewer to please get out of his personal space in the middle of their chat. This interjection comes out of nowhere, and it’s awesome because it’s so unexpected and he’s so totally sincere.

The fact that the filmmakers don’t show Godzilla much didn’t bother me. I have seen enough Godzilla movies to know that it’s a bad sign when we see the Thunder Lizard in the first five minutes. Usually a half-hour to forty-five minutes into the movie suffices.

I liked the monster designs. The MUTO is obviously a riff on Mothra (there’s even a diagram of a moth at the beginning of the movie), and they resemble the xenomorphs from Alien, but I thought they were well-done. I liked the Godzilla design. I liked his roar. Solid Godzilla fare.

Anyway, I know you all have been waiting for this. Here are my top five Godzilla movies!

  1. Godzilla v. MechaGodzilla (1974) – vintage MechaGodzilla (pictured above) is my favorite ever action-figure. This movie is great because it features a ten-minute song to summon the heroic monster King Caesar, who awakens and proceeds to get pummeled to jelly by MechaGodzilla.
  2. Godzilla (1958) – watch the uncut original, not the Raymond Burr remake!
  3. Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964) – this movie features the Monster Summit, when Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra share a conference call before kicking King Ghidorah’s ass off planet Earth.
  4. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Monster Attack (2001) – the best Godzilla movie of the 21st century (so far), this is a must watch!
  5. Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)– the Heisei Era of Godzilla cinematography isn’t my favorite and has some real stinkers, but I have a soft spot for this movie because it has an actual plot and attempts to be timely (genetic engineering!). Biollante is actually a Godzilla clone combined with a rose. This could be a great movie, but is hampered by poor effects.