Tourist Trap

I saw Tourist Trap on Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In, a twenty-four hour movie marathon that I highly recommend. Tourist Trap is a weird movie that borrows its look from Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but without that movie’s fabled grit.

No, Tourist Trap has a bizarre vibe all its own. It stars Chuck Connors and Tanya Roberts along with a group of attractive roadkill – er, I mean youths. Seeing Tanya Roberts before she became famous is a real eye opener, sort of like watching Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun, the best movie you’ll ever see about a homicidal leprechaun.

The plot: six young people get stranded at a roadside wax museum run by friendly weirdo Chuck Connors. Unfortunately, Chuck’s crazy telekinetic brother isn’t as friendly and the attractive youths get picked off one by one. I will say that the killer wears some pretty freaky masks. Our youthful revelers dress in cut-offs and t-shirts, but the final girl wears a white dress paired with a white sunbonnet and looks like she’s going to church. The subtext, it burns my eyes!

Tourist Trap gets an A-plus for its creative use of mannequins. Chuck’s house used to be a roadside wax museum, and Chuck’s wacky brother uses his telekinetic powers to animate those mannequins – at points, he goes way beyond animating the mannequins. He thinks the final girl looks like his dead wife, even though she looks nothing like her, but he’s crazy so we should cut him some slack.

Tourist Trap sure isn’t boring. I don’t know if it deserves the title of a cult classic, but it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. It’s well-made and it has a bizarre vibe that I liked. If possible, watch Tourist Trap on Joe Bob’s Drive-In, as his commentary will add to your movie-going experience!

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The Sculptor

The Sculptor reminded me of the work of James Patterson, one of the most successful authors of the past twenty years. I’ve enjoyed reading a few of the authors Mr. Patterson has worked with. For instance, Michael Koryta’s The Ridge is a great, spooky read. If you like James Patterson, give The Sculptor a try. It’s a fast-paced mystery/thriller with plenty of action and romance.

Spoilers ahead.

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Okay, here’s my unvarnished opinion. I did not like The Sculptor, but I see that the author is a contemporary, as it were. Robert Bloch has passed away. Stephen Dobyns is off teaching and Bret Easton Ellis is off being Bret Easton Ellis. A bad review doesn’t mean anything to them. In addition, there are many people who enjoy books like The Sculptor, which are often quite successful. I myself used to read forty to fifty mysteries per year. My tastes changed, as you will see by reading this review.

The Sculptor reminded me of a movie called Blood and Black Lace, a famous giallo by Italian filmmaker Mario Bava. I did not appreciate Blood and Black Lace on my first watch because all the characters were incredibly shallow and the movie’s look and music reminded me of an episode of Charlie’s Angels. Later, I realized how influential Mr. Bava must have been to have so many directors imitate him (this movie came out in 1964). I also realized that the characters were incredibly shallow on purpose; indeed, they worked in an amoral field that almost required it.

The Sculptor has no such excuse. Saddled with unrealistic characters, multiple inconsistencies and a cliched plot, this book reminded me of a bad TV movie. It wouldn’t be a Lifetime movie, because Lifetime movies can often be quite gritty. Maybe a movie of the week?

The Sculptor’s problems can be narrowed down to three issues, believability, predictability and agency. This book has multiple believability issues – how did the Sculptor get in and out of prison to cut off and make a sculpture of Stanky’s penis? Did Stanky wear a full-body hazmat suit when having sex with the Aussie woman? Why did the college’s housing department make Jesse and Mara roommates? A serial killer is preying upon exchange students, but apparently that’s not a big deal because it’s business as usual. The grad students like to drink and carouse – wait, that part’s realistic. College students love to party.

The characters are – look, real cops don’t act like Enzo. Good-looking guys like Jesse aren’t secretly vulnerable. ‘Secretly vulnerable’ is a bad pick-up line, replacing ‘I used to work for the CIA.’ The only character I liked was Stanky, mostly because of his magnificent nickname. He also does a great job of cock-blocking Jesse. When your readers start pulling for the villain, your book has problems.

Second, predictability. There isn’t any suspense. I knew Mara wouldn’t be in any real danger until the book was almost over because the author isn’t going to maybe kill off her heroine until the final act. I knew Mara and Jesse’s relationship would have its share of bumps, because that’s what the plot requires. These plot requirements aren’t bad things, mind you, but it’s the author’s job to make the reader lose herself in the book and not think about such things.

My biggest problem with The Sculptor is agency. Mara has no agency; the killer does. To put it another way: it is the killer, and not Mara, who drives the plot. Many movies and books are structured like this, but at this point in my life I don’t read those books or watch those movies anymore.

 

Book review! Y: The Last Man, Unmanned

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This graphic novel is about a plague that kills every man on Earth, minus one. Yorick has just graduated from college, and he’s wondering what to do with his life now that he’s all big and growed up. Before the plague hits, he’s in the process of digesting the fact that his English degree qualifies him to work at a bookstore. Yorick is proposing to his girlfriend over the phone when every man on Earth dies. Here are the possible causes of the plague:

1. The Amulet of Helene, a mystic item of great power, is shanghaied from its homeland. Every man on Earth is killed as reprisal. Source: The Book of Exodus, The Bible.
2. Dr. Mann creates a clone of herself. When she gives birth to said clone (a baby boy) it triggers a chain reaction that wipes out all men.
3. A biological weapon of mass destruction created by some government (take your pick) that is accidentally unleashed on the world. Source: The Stand.
4. Yorick is dreaming; making the entire story up (he is an English major); or hallucinating as he lies dying. Source: St. Elsewhere.
5. Yorick’s monkey is a test animal (note that it doesn’t like needles), rescued by animal rights activists from the lab where the virus was created. Because of the experiments the monkey is immune to the plague and he passes that immunity on to Yorick (probably by biting him).
6. Yorick has godlike powers. When his girlfriend dumps him over the phone (we don’t hear the end of their conversation) he kills every male on the planet in a fit of pique. Source: The Twilight Zone.

Whatever. Yorick is the last guy on Earth, and he’s got Amazons and government agents running after him. He decides to go to Australia to find his girlfriend. Joining him are Agent 355, a mysterious government agent; and Dr. Mann, the doctor who created the clone. Great start to a series; highly recommended.

Book review! Bat-Manga: The Secret History of Batman in Japan

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The stories in this volume are entertaining and trot along at a nice clip. The stories are a sci-fi/superhero hybrid, similiar to the campy Batman stories of the 50’s and 60’s and the Adam West television show. Not exactly realistic, but who cares? I like the villains, whose ranks include a super-intelligent gorilla and manga versions of Clay Face and Two Face. My favorite is ‘Lord Death Man,’ who uses the power of yoga to cheat death!

My only complaint is that some of the stories end in cliffhangers and are not continued; other stories start in the second chapter. This is somewhat annoying, and I’m not sure what the designers of the book were thinking. The book looks nice and all, but I’m in it for the stories not the design of the book!

Bottom line: If they ever release more Bat-Manga I will read it.

Book review! Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

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Legacy of Ashes is founded on three premises.

1. The CIA is incompetent. The author gathers plenty of ammo to back this one up, to the point of downplaying the agency’s successes and highlighting its failures. He still makes a compelling argument that the CIA’s track record isn’t good.
2. The CIA’s dual functions – gathering intelligence and covert operations – are fundamentally at odds with each other. This is obvious. Covert operations thrive on secrecy, not openness. On a more practical level, if you try to gather accurate information and disseminate disinformation at the same time you will invariably get the two confused. This is the best argument in the book; the author should have focused on this one more.
3. An organization like the CIA can not be truly effective in a democracy. The author does not say this, but it’s what he thinks. He  states it differently, more like: an organization like the CIA has no place in a democracy.

Legacy of Ashes contains a great deal of information. Mr. Weiner did his homework and then some. This book isn’t a real history because true historians try not to let their personal biases affect their thinking, which the author does. Also: after Richard Nixon the book gets sketchy. I’m assuming this is because a lot of the information has not yet been declassified (Mr. Weiner gets most of his information from primary documents from the CIA’s archives).

Still a good read.

Book review! The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944.

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The Day of Battle is about the invasion of Italy in World War II. It took me almost a month to read, but it was worth it. The author’s attention to detail and his ability to sustain a narrative are impressive. The battle descriptions are clearly written and the characters (major & minor) are all well-drawn. Essential reading for military history buffs and lovers of good non-fiction.