Archive for October, 2012

Happy Halloween!

Ladies and gentlemen, boils and ghouls, it’s the best day of the year.

Everyone have an outstanding, thrilling, spooky, horrifying, treat-filled Halloween.

Tomorrow, I guess we’ll start the countdown to the next Halloween…

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Tricks, Treats, and Scares

Trick ‘r Treat

Just a day left ’til the best day of the year, so let’s get one more review done — namely for this, the best horror movie about Halloween ever made.

“Trick ‘r Treat” is a movie that many of you have never seen and many have never even heard of. Thank the studio for that — it was finished and in the can, but got held back for two whole years ’til it was finally released direct-to-DVD. What can you say — sometimes, the studios are dumber’n stumps.

The film was written and directed by Michael Dougherty and produced by Bryan Singer. The stars included Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker, and scads of others.

So what’ve we got here? It’s a good old-fashioned horror anthology — four different stories, all taking place in the same town on the same Halloween night. All of the stories are based around various important Halloween traditions — don’t blow out a jack-o-lantern before midnight, wear a costume, give candy to trick-or-treaters, and check your candy before you eat it — and about the dangers that can befall you if you break those traditions.

We get stories about a young couple — one a Halloween fan, the other a Halloween hater. We get a school principal who has some unusual holiday traditions to share with students. We get a bunch of kids playing a prank on an awkward friend and what they learn about the urban legend of the Halloween School Bus Massacre. We get a young woman hoping to lose her virginity on Halloween. We get the cantankerous old man who hates Halloween and how he deals with a persistent trick-or-treater. And wrapped in and around these stories is one recurring character — Sam, a little kid wearing a tacky orange clown suit and an ugly, ominous burlap sack over his head.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This isn’t the scariest movie in the world — in fact, it’s really fairly tame, as horror movies go. Not to say it doesn’t have its share of scary moments — but this movie doesn’t aspire to be “The Exorcist.” This one is basically a nice little love letter to Halloween.

It’s probably more accurate to call this a horror-comedy, as it has a lot of funny or at least morbidly funny moments. Probably the funniest episode is the one focusing on the principal, though that one has some really outstanding tension. All the rest have some great humor in them, just enough to give you a short break from the scares. Probably the most purely terrifying episode is the one featuring the Halloween School Bus Massacre, which mostly sets the humor aside in favor of giving you nightmares.

And the setting and mood help make this one a winner, too. This is set in a small Ohio town that manages to have the best dang Halloween celebrations I’ve ever seen, complete with huge, anarchic street festivals, costumed marching bands, people who decorate their yards with scarecrows and hordes of jack-o-lanterns, and more kids out trick-or-treating than I’ve seen in at least a decade. This is what I wish every Halloween could be like (minus the supernatural murders, of course), and watching it really hits you in the nostalgia-bone.

It’s a fantastic movie. Rent it, stream it, buy it, whatever you gotta do.

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House of Hellboy

Hellboy: House of the Living Dead

This came out last year, and somehow I missed it entirely ’til just a couple months ago. It’s yet another installment in the always-enjoyable collaborations between writer and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and horror-art legend Richard Corben. Even better, it’s a direct sequel to their glorious “Hellboy in Mexico” one-shot from a couple of years back.

Let’s look at some of the backstory here: in the 1950s, Hellboy spent time in Mexico, drinking and fighting vampires with three brothers who were luchadores — masked Mexican wrestlers. But one of the brothers was turned into a vampire, and Hellboy was forced to destroy him in a wrestling bout in an ancient Aztec temple surrounded by zombies — and the guilt sent him into the bottle for several years. This is a story from that era of Hellboy’s history.

So Hellboy is now supporting himself and his drinking habit by wrestling as a luchadore himself. He’s visited by a man who offers him the chance to wrestle his employer’s champion — and if Hellboy refuses, he’ll kill an innocent girl. And Hellboy soon finds himself dealing with a genuine mad scientist, his genuine crazed hunchbacked assistant, and a genuine Frankenstein monster — who Hellboy must defeat to save the girl. And even if he can stop the monster — which isn’t guaranteed — he’ll also have to deal with a werewolf, vampires, and demons before the night is through.

Verdict: Thumbs up. An excellent story, action-packed, funny, melancholy, and crammed to the gills with everything you’d want in a Halloween comic. Mignola claims to have never watched any of the classic Mexican luchadore-vs.-monster movies, but what he’s created here is at least as good — you’ve got spooky stuff from all the monsters and ghosts, but you’ve also got a massive dose of atmosphere by setting it back in 1950s Mexico — earthy, poverty-stricken, traditional, and largely focused on luchadores.

Corben’s art is, as always, phenomenal — beautiful as the innocent Sonia, depraved as the mad Tupo, gruesome as the stitched-together brute, menacing as the revitalized vampire and his brides — he even manages pure simple blandness in the dimly obedient Raul. It’s at turns gorgeous and brutal, and you couldn’t look away if you wanted to.

It’s a grand comic, perfect for Halloween or any time you need awesome monsters and luchadores to get through your day. It’s definitely worth picking up — go bug your local shop for it.

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Friday Night Fights: Eye Scream!

Well, we got ourselves a situation here. It’s the last Friday before Halloween — the best holiday of the year! — and I always prefer to feature something appropriately spooky for Friday Night Fights at this time of year. But holy circus peanuts, Halloween is still five days away! Is it going to be possible to pull up a battle so epic and terrifying that its effects will still be felt that far away? I don’t know, but I owe it to everyone to try — not just for my sake, not just for yours, but for… FRIDAY NIGHT FIGHTS!

So today’s battle comes to us from the horror manga series Uzumaki, Volume 1, released in October 1998, by creator Junji Ito. As I mentioned when I reviewed it a couple of years ago, this series focuses on a small town cursed by ominous, ever-present spirals that inevitably bring doom, death, mutations, terror, and madness. So we come to “The Scar,” the third chapter of the first volume, where we meet a girl named Azami Kurotani, who has a small crescent-shaped scar on her forehead.

But soon, the scar grows, curves around, and becomes… a spiral.

And things get worse from there.

Yeah, Azami, that’s one heck of a scar there. You’ll have to get plastic surgery to correct that so —

Ooh. That’s… not at all good, is it?

And as you might expect at this point… Things get worse.

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

**twitch**  **twitch**

**faints dead away**

Well, that’s all thoroughly horrifying, but where’s the bit where people are doing violence to each other? That comes a bit later that night…

There you go — that’s at least a week’s worth of horror and screaming and holy-flippin’-flapjacks-did-I-really-see-that to tide you over from now ’til Halloween.

Now head over to Spacebooger’s place and vote for your favorite battle. I’m sure you can spiral in on the right choice…

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The Haunt of Horror

The Haunting

I’ll come right out and say it — in my opinion, this is the best and most frightening horror movie ever made. I don’t know why it isn’t better known….

Anyway, this one was released in 1963 (There was a remake in 1999. Don’t watch it. It’s not good.), produced and directed by Robert Wise. The script was written by Nelson Gidding, based on the novel “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. The stars included Julie Harris as the frightfully nervous Eleanor Lance, Claire Bloom as hip lesbian Theodora, Richard Johnson as level-headed parapsychologist Dr. John Markway, and Russ Tamblyn as skeptical rich kid Luke Sanderson.

The plot involves Dr. Markway inviting a small group of people to Hill House, a notorious haunted house, in an attempt to prove the existence of ghosts. Hill House is not the sort of haunted house that brings headless spirits, levitating candelabra, or ladies in white — it’s a malevolent house, seemingly alive and capable of its own devious thoughts. It manifests itself as cold spots, unpleasant smells, and doors that are hinged just barely off-center, so they never stay open or closed for very long.

In the daylight, Hill House seems almost sane, but in the night, in the dark, it conspires to separate people, slams invisible cannonballs down the hallways, and giggles, moans, screams, weeps. Whatever walks there may walk alone, but it doesn’t want to be alone — it wants company in its madness, and it ruthlessly exploits every weakness to get what it wants.

Eleanor soon finds herself as the focus of the house’s obsessions — but we can’t tell if she’s really that upset by the attention. She’s emotionally unstable, desperate for friends and acceptance, but wracked by guilt because she thinks she may have let her elderly, overbearing mother die. And Hill House offers her a place where she’ll be loved and accepted forever — granted, she’d be surrounded by the mad cackling and shrieks of the dead, but maybe she really wants to be the center of all that attention.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Like I said, my very favorite horror movie. It doesn’t look like much — it’s in black and white, it doesn’t have a lot of big-name stars, and incredibly, it has almost no special visual effects. It accomplishes almost all of this wonderful terror with great cinematography and amazing sound effects. The mood, the creepiness, the genuine fear are all there in spades.

I know, I know, it doesn’t have monsters crawling through the walls, it doesn’t have chainsaws, it doesn’t have pea-soup vomit, it doesn’t have buckets of gore, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that everyone expects from horror films. It’s quiet, it’s subtle, it gets under your skin, it grabs that part of your brain that wakes up after nightmares and wants to cower underneath the blanket because this time it really might be real.

If you love horror movies and you haven’t yet seen this one, you owe it to yourself to watch it. Go find it, pop it into the DVD player, and find out what it’s all about. It’s almost Halloween, and you deserve some truly excellent scares.

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13 O’Clock

The 13th Hour by the Midnight Syndicate

When you love Halloween the way I do, you end up collecting just about anything you can that’s horror-related. Books, comics, art (well, not much art — that’s expensive), movies, and even music — I’ve got a pretty phenomenally great collection of spooky-themed music, everything from movie soundtracks, old country songs, and experimental classical music to Rob Zombie, Oingo Boingo, and the Darkest of the Hillside Thickets to Tom Waits, Roky Erickson, and Jonathan Coulton. But I think I’ve got the most complete albums by a group called the Midnight Syndicate.

The Syndicate specializes in horror movie soundtracks, usually for movies that don’t actually exist. They’re classified as goth instrumental, or dark ambient, or ethereal wave — it all breaks down to horror movies soundtracks, usually for movies that don’t actually exist. How’s that work? They basically pick a theme — vampires, insane asylums, evil carnivals, what have you — and then they put together some symphonic music scores, combined with a nice dose of sound effects, to come up with something plenty creepy.

They tend to get the most play right around Halloween. Partly because of the horror movie soundtrack stuff — partly because they let haunted attractions use their music without licensing fees. So if you’ve got a haunted house, haunted hayride, or haunted theme park in your area, there’s a decent chance that they’re playing Midnight Syndicate’s music while they’re scaring the pants off you.

My personal favorite of their albums is “The 13th Hour” which is about a trip through the haunted mansion of the evil Haverghast family. You start out with a short walk in the woods in the middle of the night when you come upon the old deserted house, open the door, and walk inside. From there, you get a musical tour through the mansion’s glories and horrors, through the lushly outfitted drawing room to the grimy basement to the family mausoleum. The ghosts you meet range from unnerving heavy breathers and moaners to more traditional ghosts all the way up to something that tries to tear the house down around your ears. Are you going to be able to escape? Or will you be spending the rest of eternity wandering these dark hallways?

Samples? I’m not giving you many — but “Fallen Grandeur” is a really good one. “Living Walls” is wonderfully creepy. “Grisly Reminder” is quiet and spooky. And “Hand in Hand Again” does great things with just an old record player and a few rumbling sound effects.

Verdict: A very enthusiastic thumbs up. This is almost perfect Halloween mood music. Pop this in the player while you’re doing housework, reading a book, surfing the web, driving to work, writing scary stories, waiting for trick-or-treaters, or anything else, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to start feeling the Halloween spirit.

It’s a wonderful, dark, ominous, ghost-filled album. I like almost all of Midnight Syndicate’s stuff, but this is definitely my fave. Go pick it up.

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Ghost World

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James

This is probably the oldest book I’m ever going to review, but I’m gonna do it partly because this is one of my favorite books of scary stories ever and partly because not nearly enough people know and love this book.

“Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” was published back in 1904 and was the first collection of British writer and scholar M.R. James’ classic ghost stories, which included:

  • “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book”
  • “Lost Hearts”
  • “The Mezzotint”
  • “The Ash-Tree”
  • “Number 13”
  • “Count Magnus”
  • “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'”
  • “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”

James’ stories, though sometimes spectacularly wordy to modern readers, were generally meant to be read aloud during Christmas celebrations — an old Victorian tradition had party-goers telling each other ghost stories at Christmas.

James’ protagonists all seem to share common traits — unassuming scholars with a high level of interest in antiquarianism — in other words, looking at old stuff. Heck, James pretty much invented the concept of the “antiquarian ghost story” — anyone who’s written anything similar in the decades since owes James a debt of gratitude.

The stereotypical beginning of the story would involve the main character having a fortnight or month-long holiday and traveling to some out-of-the-way, rural location to look at old churches. Either he’d be staying at a local inn or with an acquaintance — often someone who had a fantastically awesome library. After a few days of traipsing over the countryside, the protagonist finds himself exposed to supernatural forces — what kind of forces are rarely made explicit.

The previous paragraph probably sounds like I don’t like James’ stories, but I do, enormously. They’re predictable in some ways, but it’s a very enjoyable, comfortable kind of predictability. It’s enjoyably nostalgic to remember that people used to write these incredibly long and detailed descriptions of scenery, that amateur scholars used to be able to take long holidays just to go out in the country and look for old stuff, that people used to sit down and write letters so long and detailed that you could bind a few of them and sell them as books.

Even better than the joy of the setting, language, and mood, however, are the scares. James packs some damn good ones in here. His specialty is the off-camera fright — he suggests awful things and lets the reader fill in the blanks. Not that he backs away from more overt terrors — once the quiet stuff has done its work, James knows when to unleash the gory murders and the shrieks on the moors.

The book features a number of James’ best-known tales, including “‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'” (note the extra quotation marks — James was quoting a line from a Robert Burns poem) — a story that actually manages to make the stereotypical bedsheet ghost legitimately scary. There’s also “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” a narrative, believed to be James’ very first ghost story, about an evil piece of artwork; “Lost Hearts,” a tale of experimentation and bloody murder; “The Mezzotint,” about an engraving that tells its own ghost story; “Number 13,” about a very unlucky and very strange hotel room; “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” in which a treasure hunter cracks a code that he thinks will lead to riches; and “The Ash-Tree,” a story about a witch’s curse and something horrible hidden inside an old tree.

This book was followed in 1911 by its sequel, sometimes called “More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary,” but really just called “More Ghost Stories.” The two books are sometimes combined into a single volume.

Verdict: Thumbs up. I do recommend this book highly, but I’ll warn you that it can be a bit of an uphill slog. Like a lot of older books, the writing can seem very dated and archaic. Part of this is a difference in writing styles, but I think James was also cultivating this, too — he was a dedicated antiquarian and academic himself, writing about other dedicated antiquarians and academics.

James nearly never translates the Latin passages in his stories, because of course, a university don would be fairly fluent in Latin. He overwrites his descriptions, partly because that was the style of the time, partly because he liked to draw readers in and make them comfortable before he started unleashing the spooks and goblins.

In the end, what makes this book really cool is the fact that, not only did James invent and perfect the literary ghost story, but he’s still considered the absolute master of that style — every horror writer from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King and beyond has read and loved — and probably emulated — James’ stories.

“Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” is mostly out of copyright, so is available in many places online, but you should pick up a print copy, ’cause it’s still cool to own books.

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The Killer in Me

Green River Killer: A True Detective Story

Is it a horror story? Is it a crime thriller? It’s a little of both, but more than anything else, this is a police procedural.

“Green River Killer” was written by Jeff Jensen and illustrated by Jonathan Case. Jensen is actually writing about his own father, Tom Jensen, a detective in the King County Sheriff’s Office in Washington state. Detective Jensen spent a good chunk of his career on the hunt for the infamous Green River Killer, and when the murderer was finally unmasked as a schlub named Gary Leon Ridgway, Jensen became part of the team working to identify as many of his victims as possible. To do that, as part of a plea agreement, Ridgway was given temporary housing inside the sheriff’s office in hopes of getting him to lead detectives to more bodies.

What follows is vastly frustrating for the detectives — Ridgway’s career as a serial killer spanned decades, and he simply wasn’t able to remember many details about all the women he’d killed. He said he wanted to help, but Jensen and the other investigators wondered if he was really a low-IQ mook with a bad memory or if he was just playing them for fools in hopes of getting away with his crimes.

We’re essentially dealing with two protagonists in this book. One is, obviously, Detective Jensen, devoting years of his life to hunting down and trying to understand one of history’s worst serial killers. But the other is Gary Ridgway himself, though few people would want to identify with him. Yeah, he’s a killer and necrophiliac who confessed to over 70 murders, he’s a complete sad-sack loser, dull-witted, pointlessly angry, a moral hypocrite on multiple levels — but you still identify with him to some degree, because he doesn’t know why he killed all those people either.

Granted, Ridgway isn’t a very likeable protagonist, but our natural empathy leads us to sympathize with him on a human level — and that leads to a few minor scares on its own — every time you feel a twinge of sympathy for Ridgway, for his fears and sorrows and stupid motivations, you wonder why on earth you’re identifying with this monster. Detective Jensen, thankfully, is a much more enjoyable character — smarter, funnier, more personable, more emotionally involved in the mysteries he’s charged with solving.

It’s not all murder and cop talk, though — there are lots of great human moments with the Jensen family or with the other officers. One of my favorite moments is when Jensen has to pass a physical exam to remain on the force — he has to subdue a fellow officer posing as a bank robber — a serious task for a middle-aged, out-of-shape detective. So Detective Jensen asks the officer to pretend he’s one of those nice bank robbers who won’t hurt him too badly. A great, funny moment — and it’s one of many that Jensen and Case use to break up the seriousness of the story.

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a wonderfully-told cop story — really, a wonderfully-told human story, with massive amounts of empathy and understanding for the police, the victims, and even the killer himself. Beautifully written by Jeff Jensen, with great dialogue, and the art by Jonathan Case is precise, emotional, and charismatic.

Don’t think it’s all cop talk and quiet moments — there are some very chilling moments. The discoveries of bodies in various states of decay are often presented shockingly and frighteningly, Ridgway’s accounts of how he killed his victims and what he did to them afterwards will make your skin crawl, and the prologue, featuring Ridgway’s first murder attempt, is a masterpiece of suspense and fear.

This is a winner if you like serial killer stories, if you like crime thrillers, if you like police procedurals, if you like slice-of-life memoirs. Go pick it up.

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Madness Takes its Toll

It’s a week and a half ’til Halloween, the best holiday of the year, and I’m tired of reviewing regular comics. So let’s spend the rest of the month focusing on stuff that’s scary — whether it be comics, movies, or anything else. And heck, today, let’s start with a movie.

Session 9

This movie was directed by Brad Anderson, written by Anderson and Stephen Gevedon, and released back in 2001.

The movie’s characters include Gordon (Peter Mullan) who runs a small asbestos removal company and is under a great deal of pressure by a new baby and lower profits from his business. He employs Phil (David Caruso), his rock-steady partner who hates fellow employee Hank (Josh Lucas) for stealing his girlfriend. Mike (Stephen Gevedon, one of the writers) is a former law school student who everyone agrees is too smart to be working such a lousy job, and Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) is Gordon’s nephew, grateful to be working for his uncle.

They all get introduced to the Danvers State Mental Hospital, where they have just one week to clean up the asbestos at the site — an almost impossible task. Gordon hears voices calling his name. Everyone gets their heads filled with stories about lobotomies and murders and madness. Hank discovers a cache of money and valuables. And Mike starts skipping out on his duties so he can listen to old reel-to-reel tapes of a psychiatrist interviewing a patient named Mary who suffers from multiple personalities, some innocent, one very, very malign. There are nine tapes, each covering a single psychiatric session with Mary and the voices in her head.

Hank disappears. And everything goes to hell.

Verdict: Thumbs up. I like this movie a lot. It seems like it’s been specifically designed to appeal to my personal sense of what makes the scariest movies — not a lot of gory violence, no monsters jumping out of closets, just a lot of quiet, creepy stuff.

The introductory premise alone is enough to get many viewers squirming — asbestos can cause cancer and other serious conditions with the right exposures, but in popular culture, the risk is even higher and more dire. Just imagining working around such a dangerous mineral, always looking for a way to worm its way into your lungs to wreak havoc, can be enough to make many audience members nervous.

All the actors do a great job — nothing really spectacular, just good work by good actors. Even Caruso does a fine job — his eccentric performances in “CSI: Miami” are nowhere in evidence.

But the star of the film is, without a doubt, the Danvers Hospital itself.

It used to be a real mental hospital that operated from 1878 to 1992. It was said to be the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanatorium, and thus for the Arkham Asylum from the Batman comics.

In the years since its closure, the facility has remained beautiful and stately (but also ominously threatening) on the outside — but on the inside, it became almost unspeakably decayed and claustrophobic — as pure a metaphor for madness as can be described. The building is a maze of peeling paint, cracked windows, and dark, shadowy corridors. Little work was needed to make the sets scarier — real-life age, neglect, decay, and dust had done the hard work for the set designers. The building looks genuinely terrifying, inside and out.

There are shocks and scares here, but they’re not the ones that come screaming down the hallways, scraping talons on the walls and slinging viscera over the landscape. These are quiet, whispering, intimate fears. They hide just on the other side of your own worries and quirks and distrusts and paranoias. Gordon, Phil, Mike, Hank, and Jeff have the same weaknesses we have, and any of us could share their fates.

It’s a wonderfully scary movie. Go pick it up.

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Friday Night Fights: Green vs. Machine!

Holy cow, it’s Friday again! The weekend is upon us! We have no time for clever intros! We only have time for… FRIDAY NIGHT FIGHTS!

Tonight’s battle comes to us from August 2006’s She-Hulk #9 by Dan Slott, Paul Smith, and Joe Rubinstein. Jennifer Walters has just married astronaut John Jameson, and his father, J. Jonah Jameson, is having second thoughts about having a green-skinned superhero as a daughter-in-law. This resolves itself as such things often do: with robots and fisticuffs.

Ahhh, once again, comic books show us that there’s no problem that can’t be solved with gamma radiation, mad science, and beating each other up.

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