August 30, 2011

Closed on Account of the Plague

Probably won't hear much from me anywhere this week. This is the start of classes at the university and, typically, one of our busiest times of year. To complicate things even more, I currently have what I'm hoping is just a summer cold.

I usually don't get sick. I really don't. Despite presisting with smoking cigarettes, I stay in decent health and keep in good shape. The problem is: when I do get sick, it knocks me on my ass.

I'm hoping to kick this thing before the weekend, but, either way, don't think I'm going to be communicating very much the rest of the week. There are a couple of people that I owe e-mails. I haven't forgotten you, honestly.

August 26, 2011

Fright Night

Last Saturday, we went to see Fright Night.

Normally I try to avoid remakes, especially if I like the original but the trailer sold me on giving this one a chance. The new version actually looked promising, like an interesting remake that didn’t seem hell-bent on murdering another pleasant memory from my youth.

Okay, well, that’s not entirely true. It was the trailer…and David Tennant. I’m a huge Doctor Who fan. Tennant is easily my favorite Doctor of the current run. Besides being my favorite Doctor, he’s one of Maria’s biggest crushes. So it was win-win.

I was surprised how much the new film retains the premise of the original. Briefly:

Charley Brewster, a high school kid, watches his neighbor out the window. Brewster learns the neighbor is a vampire responsible for a recent rash of disappearances. No one believes Brewster so he tries to enlist the aid of someone he thinks knows about vampires and can help his battle against the undead. Complications ensue when the vampire catches on to Brewster’s meddling and we build toward a horrific confrontation.

Both then and now, it’s basically a retooling of Rear Window. Unlike Distubria, it’s a clever one. The original Fright Night was funny with bits of straight-up humor and some wonderful moments of dark comedy. The comedic bits were nicely balanced against some spooky and genuinely tense moments with special effects that still hold up pretty okay. If there is a problem at all with the original film, it’s the horribly dated clothes and hair.

The important thing about the original Fright Night is that it came along in the middle of the first slasher/gore porn boom and offered a more fulfilling alternative to hockey masks and jiggling breasts hacked off by meat cleavers. Watching the film, it was clear that this was a movie that understood the horror genre in all its permutations. Fright Night knew succinctly what it was trying to do with its nods and allusions and, truthfully, it’s role as a throwback film focusing more on tension than chainsaws.

In the original, Peter Vincent was once the star of a number of Hammer style films, playing a fearless vampire hunter a la Peter Cushing. Now he’s the host of a late night horror show called Fright Night. (I believe a nod to Larry Vincent and his horror program produced by KTLA). His ratings have dropped and he’s about to be fired. No one wants him or his style of film anymore.

Or so he’s been told.

Through the course of the film, Vincent learns he still has a purpose. In a way, his character is a reflection of the movie itself, representing a level of self awareness that I believe contributed to the film's success.

Well, the horror film has come full circle again. This new version of Fright Night arrives in the midst of another torture porn explosion and, like the original, offers a successful and fulfilling alternative.

This new version of Fright Night is fast paced. Thanks to a very smart script by Marti Noxon (Buffy, Prison Break, Point Pleasant, Mad Men, Gray’s Anatomy) we start in right away with no wasted movements. Characters are introduced, we learn the neighbor is a vampire and we’re off for 120 minutes that doesn’t feel like anywhere near 2 hours.

Sure, lots of films have good pacing. However, a couple things really impressed me about Fright Night and its pacing. First, character is not sacrificed. Noxon manages to keep things rolling, but doesn't turn everyone in to cardboard cutouts. These people have personalities and identities. They’re not just there to move through the action sequences and offer a one-liner now and then. Noxon understands that part of fright, a genuine sense of terror and fear for a character, can only come through knowing and caring about that character. Sure, bits and pieces feel a little teenyboppery (Charley and Amy and Evil Ed’s relationship) and there's a later unnecessary explanation for Vincent's vampire knowledge that never really goes anywhere, but it all works. When everything is said and done, I know far more about these characters, all of them—even the vampire, than their counterparts in the original.

Not only does the film keep a quick pace without sacrificing character, but it retains the same beats and a lot of the same scenes and nuances of the original despite being a much "faster" film. You’ll love all these scenes and nods when you see them. This isn’t a mindless reshoot like Gus Van Sant’s pointless Psycho remake. The scenes are there out of respect for the material and the fans, but are tweaked to good effect.

I think a good example is the club scene.

Near the climax in the original film, the vampire is chasing Charley and his girlfriend through town. They take shelter in a dance club thinking the crowd will offer them safety.

It doesn’t.

Jerry follows. He hunts and seduces Charley’s girlfriend in the smoky, throbbing interior.

The scene is meant to be tense and a little sexy, but I always found it jarring and a little silly. The club is unexpected and out of place. The town you’ve seen up to that point in the original film doesn’t seem like it would have a dance club at all, let alone a huge, happening hot-spot.

This same scene is far more successful in the new film. Their arrival in the club is more natural and makes sense as a progression of the scene before it. It’s still not quite sexy, but it’s tense and it’s as clever as the rest of the changes and the updates.

The action in this modern version moves the story from an undisclosed suburb to Las Vegas (the original novelization by horror team Skipp & Spector names the town as Rancho Corvallis). Whether conscious or not, the move to Sin City is a nice nod to The Nightstalker. It also allows for a wonderful twist on Charley’s neighborhood. Our protagonist now lives in one of those tract housing subdivisions that Malvina Reynolds sang about. It’s modern and it’s anonymous.

It’s also unfinished and literally in the middle of the desert with nothing else around.

Anonymity and seclusion are horror’s chocolate and peanut butter.

Peter Vincent has gotten a tweak too. He’s no longer a former B-movie actor reduced to hosting a show on the local public access channel—which is for the best. I doubt if a younger audience would even know what he was supposed to be. Instead Vincent is now a big-name Las Vegas illusionist whose stage show features his “mock” battles against “vampires.” This Vincent is one part Criss Angel (tattoos and leather pants) and one part David Copperfield (a massive collection of occult/mystical artifacts). And it works.

Thanks to David Tennant. He just shines in the film. He’s everything he needs to be when he needs to be it: over the top, a little cheesy, drunk and vulgar, sad, cowardly and then brave.

I’ve never been a huge Colin Farrell fan, but he handles his role as the vampire neighbor well. He manages to walk a nice line between sexy and sleazy. His Jerry Dandridge is that douchebag you know in real life and you hate because every woman falls for his bullshit, time and time again. Farrell does give his douchebag an chilling undercurrent of menace.

Anton Yelchin is good as Charley. He’s likeable and relatable.He manages to play the geek and the popular kid believably. When Charley has no choice but to face the monster next door, he plays it with a nice sense of determine resignation.

The lovely Sandra Vergara plays Vincent’s assistant/girlfriend Ginger and she’s a dream. Her and Tennant have great chemistry together. Their scenes were some of the funniest of the entire picture.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse is this new film’s Evil Ed. I have to admit I was a little disappointed in transforming Evil Ed from socially awkward kid who likes weird shit to…well, the same role that Mintz-Plasse will be playing for the rest of his life—McLovin. He is funny, though.

The main women characters don’t have much to work with. Toni Collette stars as Charley’s mom and she’s there mostly for exposition and to stress the broad appeal of Jerry’s sexiness. The unfortunately named Imogen Poots is passable as Amy. Any young actress between 16 and 22 could have played that part and it wouldn’t have mattered—which may be purposeful. There’s a subtext to this film, that’s all about pussy: what a man will do for it and how he will protect it...and even find it scary.

Really, however those are all just minor quips though. This new version of Fright Night was excellent. Easily the best horror film I’ve seen in a long time.


August 16, 2011

Shane Stevens Update


Work continues on my Shane Stevens biographical investigation. It's currently at 40+ k and includes twenty photographs. I've recently come across some new sources of information that I've been looking into. I know a few people, some fellow Shane Stevens fans, are a little frustrated by the delay. I can, however, assure you no one wants to see this finished and circulating more than I do.

Shane wrapped himself in a lot of shadows and I'm still learning to see in the dark.

August 13, 2011

Riddick

A transport ship crashes on a distant planet after being struck by debris from a comet’s tail. Most of the people onboard die. Only one crewman survives, a woman named Carolyn Fry who panics during the landing and almost kills everyone. A few passengers crawl out of the wreckage: a runaway, a holy man and his charges, an antiquities dealer, and two settlers.

Then there’s the bounty hunter. A man named Johns, a merc with a drug habit he feeds by shooting spikes of morphine into his eyeballs.

Most of the cargo is destroyed. However, the most important cargo? The most valuable and dangerous piece is missing.

Riddick.

Riddick is Johns’ prisoner. He’s an escaped convict, a murderer with a large bounty on his head. Johns tells the survivors that Riddick is a human predator who can see in the dark and he’s capable of anything. Like skull-fucking you in your sleep.

Luckily, Johns recaptures Riddick before anyone needs a nap.

While Johns is tracking Riddick, the others survey the ship and realize it’s mostly beyond salvaging. They know then that if anyone is going to get off this desolate planet, they need to find some outpost of civilization. For that, they all need to work together.

All of them—even Riddick.

After trekking across the barren landscape and through a massive bone-yard of some now extinct species, the group finds a geological research outpost abandoned to the harsh glare of the planet’s three suns. There’s water there and even a ship. The ship is in good shape. It’s missing fuel cells, but those can be taken from their own transport. It seems like a boon, a godsend.

But still, there are no people. None.

The group investigates further and makes a chilling discovery: there’s a life-form living below ground, at home in the dark and hungry for human flesh.

It seems simple enough to avoid them on a planet with three suns. Too bad there’s a solar eclipse coming....

Last night we watched Pitch Black again. I hadn’t seen the film in a long time and had forgotten how much I loved it. It’s such a great movie--a gritty sci-fi flick, a cool horror-thriller with elements of crime fiction and it does everything so well.

It establishes a dark mood and feel in frame one with Vin Diesel’s opening voice-over, “They say most of your brain shuts down in cryosleep. All but the primitive side... the animal side. No wonder I'm still awake.” It’s shot beautifully and simply with different light filters and uses only a minimum of computer effects. The cast is great with Vin Diesel, Cole Hauser, Radha Mitchell, the lovely Claudia Black, and Keith David. There are nonstop bits of quotable dialogue and it’s incredibly tense and suspenseful and scary without going the cheap buckets of gore route.

It’s a shame the sequel is so awful.

I remember being excited when I first heard they were making a sequel to Pitch Black. The world created in the first film is a dark and dirty future of cramped, poorly lit ships and massive dark prisons. It’s a Blade Runner future, an Alien future, an Escape From New York future. A human-centric universe with all those human centric problems that people want desperately to escape from, signing up to be settlers on distant and hardscrabble worlds but none of them have money so they travel the lonely ghostlanes.

Riddick is a character from crime fiction. He’s a very human monster. Abandoned at birth and tossed in a dumpster, you know he grew up hard and growing up hard removed him from any connection to the human race. He exists apart and not among.

The first film establishes this. It establishes this through dialogue:

“And then you get sent to a prison where they tell you you'll never see daylight again. So you dig up a doctor, pay him twenty menthol Kools to do a surgical shine job on your eyes …”

“You think someone could spend half their life in a slam with a horse bit in their mouth and not believe? You think he could start out in some … liquor store trash bin with an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and not believe in God? You got it all wrong, holy man. I absolutely believe in God … and I absolutely hate the fucker”

Johns: Doctors decide who lives and dies on the battlefield. It's called Triage.
Riddick: Kept calling it murder when I did it.

The only survivor Riddick doesn’t fuck with is “Jack.” Everyone else he talks shit to. Everyone else he intimidates. But not Jack.

You see, Jack is a runaway. A girl pretending to be a boy. (I think you can read between the lines here and see Jack's life, can't you?). And only Riddick knows it straight off. This creates a connection--Riddick sees himself. Sees another abandoned one.

But that doesn’t automatically bring a full, human connection. Near the end of the film Riddick is fully prepared to abandon the survivors to the planet of monsters. It’s only when Fry says she’ll die for them that he agrees to go back and help.

Riddick goes back not because his heart grew three sizes that day, but because he’s intrigued. He’s never seen this before. What he’s experienced of humanity is not this.  It’s not selfless. It’s not caring. It’s not love. It’s just you and your own survival.

He wants to know, I think, how this is going to play out.

I dug the film and I had these visions of what the sequel would be like. I do that with things that speak to me, with things I like. I imagine being a part of this created world and what I would do with it, how I would contribute...

Their ship lands in some planet-wide megaopolis. A massive, futuristic urban hell. Riddick abandons the girl named Jack, leaving her in the care of hoodoo holy man. He thinks that maybe this way, she won’t have to become like him.

Jump forward a few years. Riddick lives in the alleways and the tunnels and trash-strewn streets lit with neon and slick with blood. The girl Jack comes to find him. She needs his help. He agrees, because he’s intrigued. Maybe she helps save his life from some bounty hunters and he goes with her because he owes her a debt?

Jack takes him to a group of other cast-offs, a hidden undercity of forgotten people, the abandoned people--people like Riddick that no one wanted, not even their mothers. This group is in danger.
Complications ensue...
Finally, Riddick agrees to help them because he realizes he’s found his tribe. His people. His family of choice.

With the sequel I thought I’d get Andrew Vachss in space with a little bit of Hollywood badass thrown-in. Instead, I got Conan in space with a whole lot of lazy and generic fantasy trappings.

I remember being confused at first--This is the sequel to Pitch Black, right?

Yeah.

Then why is it generic fantasy in a shitty space-opera wrapper? Why are their generic fantasy names like Necromongers? Why are there Elementals and weird super alien powers? Why is Riddick suddenly the last Cimmerian Furyian destined to be a king?

Why is the only decent bit of dialogue, “Did you know you grind your teeth in your sleep... sexy.”?

And why is the rest awful fantasy dialogue that you'd expect from a Syfy Pictures Original:

“Consider this: if you fall here, now, you will never rise. But if you choose another way, the Necromonger way, you will die in due time, and rise again in the Underverse.”

“He's not a man. He's the Holy Half-Dead who has seen the Underverse and returned with powers you can't imagine.”

Did I miss something? Did we all watch the same movie?

Yeah.

These are the same guys doing this film, right? I mean, the people behind the first one. It's not the guys responsible for Highlander II: The Shitting The Quickening, is it?

Yeah, same guys. No, not the Highlander II guys.

Damn!

Well, I remember telling myself, at least I have the first film. 


The first film and my imagination.

August 12, 2011

I've Never Been Able To Put My Finger On It Until Now

For a short time there's a great essay on CSI over at Smart Pop Books. The always insightful and immensely talented Nick Mamatas managed to explain in a single paragraphy why I never liked CSI:

"CSI and the inevitable knock-offs (Bones, Crossing Jordan, and to a lesser extent the medical mystery show House) are the ultimate in wish-fulfillment. For all of us good American taxpayers, there is a nanny police state that uses nothing but objective and infallible means to keep society from falling into chaos. With infinite resources at its command, but no special demands made upon anyone except for the guilty, the nanny police state (staffed not by evil storm troopers or soulless technocrats, but sexy, if flawed, individuals) keeps us safe."
Read "You Care Who Killed Roger Ackroyd" before it's gone.

August 11, 2011

Where Do You Get Your Ideas: Spam Phishing

I don't think there's anyone who hasn't received a "Nigerian Letter" at least once. I get them delivered frequently to my work e-mail.

Yesterday, I received an interesting one. It was a nice variation on the letter's conventions with the additions of shady business partners, murder by poison, and a young girl desperate for a savior. Below is the text of the spam/phishing attempt. The only thing I've done is truncate the sender's name to its first letters.

Greetings from S-- K--

With all due respect, I want you to read my letter with one mind and help me. I am S-- K--, The only child of late Mr. and Mrs. K--, My Late father was a very wealthy cocoa dealer in in Lome Togo before he was poisoned to death by his business associates on one of their outing to discuss on a business deal.

When my mother died when she was given birth to me, my father took me so special because I am motherless. Before the death of my father on 22nd September, 2010 in a private hospital here in Lome Togo. He secretly called me on his bedside and told me that he has a sum of USD10, 000,000.00 Ten million United States dollars left in a suspense account in a local bank here in Lome Togo, that he used my name as his only daughter for the next of kin in deposit of the fund.

He also explained to me that it was because of this wealth that he was poisoned by his business associates that I should seek for a foreign partner in a country of my choice where I will transfer this money and use it for investment purpose, such real estate agent,

I am 17year old. Dear I am honorably seeking your assistance in the following ways.

1) To provide any bank account where this money would be transferred into.
2) To serve as the guardian of this fund.
3) To make arrangement for me to come over to your country to further my education and to secure a residential permit for me in your country.

Moreover, I am willing to offer you 20 percent of the total sum as compensation for your effort input after the successful transfer of this fund to your nominated account overseas.

I want you to help me not because of the 20 percent I want to offer you but to take me as your adoptive child and take good care of my life. Please save my life.

Hope to hear from you soonest.
Thanks and God Bless.
Best regards,
S--  K--
Yesterday, I received this, reported it to the sender's provider, and then starting thinking about it in terms of story. What if it were real? What if someone got one of these 419 Fraud letters in their e-mail and it turned out to be genuine and there really was a young girl in a foreign country with a huge sum of money fleeing from her dead father's murdering business partners?

As writers we all get the ideas question. This is a prime example of what people who aren't writers will never understand. Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere.

August 10, 2011

Left To Memory

I’ve been re-reading a bunch of The Destroyer books to get in the correct headspace for something I’ve been working on.

The Destroyer books, in case you’re not familiar with them, was an action adventure series that ran for a number of years and authors. The main character is a man named Remo Williams. He’s a NYC cop when he’s forcibly recruited into CURE, a secret organization that answers only to the president. You see, Remo grew up an orphan and as an adult he still has no family of his own, so he's the perfect target. CURE fakes his death and hands the unwilling Williams over to Chiun, the Master of Sinanju (the source of all martial arts; the art of which all others are but shadows), to be trained as their newest weapon—The Destroyer.

During the course of the series, Remo and Chiun travel the globe and fight evil geniuses, maniacal warlords, masters of mind control and other deadly assassins. The books have tons of action, some sex, and a good bit of comedy (mostly from Chiun).

The series was adapted into a fun but terrible film starring Fred Ward as Remo and (yes, this is as offensive as it sounds) non-Asian Joel Grey as Master Chiun. After the Hollywood flop, they gave it a go as a pilot for a television series. I thought that pilot was a little better. At least they bothered to hire a real martial artist for Remo (Jeffrey Meeks). However, they insisted on keeping up the disgusting "yellow face" by casting Roddy McDowell as Chiun. I haven’t checked, but I would be surprised if you couldn’t stream one or both on Netflix.

I remembered loving the books as a kid. I thought they would be the perfect to gear switch my brain. Besides, I remembered them being a whole lot of fun.

And they still are…just not quite as much.

I mean there’s still pulpy goodness. All that wonderful, wonderful cheese—like death rays, ninja magic, and hot voodoo priestess.

The first thing I noticed was what a lot of people refer to as the books' "politcal uncorrectness". I'd go a little further and say that there's a political bent and a general societal opinion that differs a lot from my own. That's been a little of a turnoff for me, but I've been able to live with it through a couple books by keeping in mind when these were written and maintaining the mental distance I'll use when reading something like Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu or one of H.P. Lovecraft's rascist rants in the middle of an otherwise excellent weird tale.

However, the main thing that's bugged me? The thing that's really kept me from enjoying the books? A lot of the martial arts scenes?

Just fucking blow.


I read the first Destroyer book back in 1985 when I was nine years old. I didn’t know much about martial arts then.

Now, I have black belts in Taekwondo and Hapkido. I studied Wing Chun in Germany. I practiced 9 Animal Style Kung-fu and Shaolin-do in college. I even tried my hand at Capoeria. In addition, I’ve watched a hell of a lot of martial arts movies (not just Hong Kong films, but movies from Japan, Korea, Thailand, and India), quite a bit of boxing, and a lot of MMA matches.

I know a little bit about martial arts now.

I understand Murphy and Sapir wrote a lot of these books and wrote them quick. I understand they wrote some of them with other writers. I understand that other writers wrote a lot of them alone.

I get that.

And I even understand that the two hardest things to write are:
  1. Sex Scenes 
  2. Fight Scenes
Like pretty much everything in fiction, sex and violence should feel real, but be better than actual reality. Doing either one well enough that it’s exciting and engaging, rather than just silly, overly technical or unappealing vulgar takes real talent.

I understand what I’m reading when I pick up a book like The Destroyer. I really do. I’ve always believed there is an unspoken agreement between writer and reader. Certain things you agree to accept as reality as long as there’s still a consistency maintained within the fictional world itself. So, I have no problem with something like, “Master Han focused his chi and then punctured the steel door with two fingers.” Or even the occasional, “The Black Ninja moved through the horde of goons like a silent whirlwind of death.”

Why?

Because those are things that can happen within that particular fictional world.

Yet, a couple of things struck me re-reading The Destroyer books and have really been a letdown:

1.) I have absolutely no idea how Sinanju looks, stylistically.
Yes, I understand it’s supposed to be the origin of all martial arts. So, it may be indescribable in typical terms like hard or soft, internal or external. But, as the origin of all martial arts, shouldn’t that make Sinanju descriptions easy for any writer? You don’t have to learn about every martial art completely. You can describe a karate style kick, some wing chun style trapping maneuver, an aikido throw, and a jujitsu joint lock.
2.) At least in the early books I own, Murphy and Sapir apparently never bothered to learn anything about the martial arts or were just writing these books too quick to care.
A lot of fight scenes are blown through quickly. Chiun or Remo dispatches a goon in a single sentence. Or we’re treated to some just plain silly nonsense like the judo chop to the neck. (I’m serious--A “judo chop”). Or worst still are the fight descriptions that make no sense when you attempt to visualize it in your mind.
Ugh.

Re-reading them has been a reminder that some things should just be left to memory. Re-discovery often brings disappointment.

August 1, 2011

F. Paul Wilson Interview in Crime Factory # 7


Crime Factory # 7 is now live. It's a massive issue. So large you'll be thankful it's in electronic format, thus sparing you the back trouble. It's full of a lot of good stuff, tons of fiction and feature by writers like Sean Doolittle, Todd Robinson, Matthew C. Funk, Derek Kelly, The Nerd of Noir, Richard Thomas, Don Lafferty, Joelle Charbonneau, and Edward Grainger.

It also includes an interview I did with F. Paul Wilson, the author of the long-running Repairman Jack series (one of my favorites). I conducted the interview a while ago, but its appearance was, understandably, delayed due to the computer theft that led to Cam cancelling the planned Horror Factory issue. The delay, I don't think, in no way makes the interview less relevant or timely.

It was a treat to speak to Mr. Wilson. I can honestly say he was one of the nicest and most understanding people I've ever met. If there is anything awkward with the interview, I can assure you--it's my fault and my fault alone.

Read it here.
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