Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories

Laird Barron
Night Shade Books

Laird Barron is well known to readers of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Five of the nine stories in this collection were first published there. His work also appears in about two-dozen anthologies and numerous magazines online and in print. He's the winner of a Shirley Jackson Award for The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, and has received seven International Horror Guild Award nominations and five nominations for a Locus Award. If you haven't read much fantasy fiction lately and you're under the impression that speculative writing is dreamlike or disconnected from every day experience, Barron's fiction will change your mind.

The tales in this collection fuse the supernatural and the quotidian with disturbing results. Barron creates a world that looks, feels and smells like reality. Yet just outside this world, touching the edge of the picture and threatening to cross over into it, are the shadows and shapes of something dreadful. Like the conjured images of a Rorschach test, the longer you look at these shapes, the more ominous they appear.

I was amused but not really surprised to read that the author of these psychologically piercing stories used to raise huskies in Alaska, and that he had extensive martial arts training. The lower echelon political figures, cynical real estate tycoons, broken soldiers of fortune and former athletes and beauty queens who populate his stories resonate with a graphic sensibility writers can only gain from experiences unrelated to the literary arts. When these characters speak, it is with a weariness born of too much knowledge about the human condition. When they finally decide to act--and they seldom do so on a whim--it is with a grim understanding that the future may easily hold greater pain and horror than the present, for there is no end to horror in the history of our race.

From the aging paramilitary protagonist of "Old Virginia" to the guilt-ridden mogul in "Hallucigenia" there is a deep and adult sense of mortality that darkens even the most casual exchange. "Shiva, Open Your Eye" follows the spiritual journey of a serial killer whose self-justification is profound and global in its proportions. The compromised characters of The Imago Sequence and Other Stories search for lost works of art and hidden records in attempts to explain the inexplicable. Like a Werner Herzog film, their dangerous yet well documented adventures lapse into obsessive, nightmarish enterprises that lure them ever onward to their doom.

This is the only collection of stories I have ever read that actually entered my consciousness to the degree that I dreamed about its landscapes and characters. Chalk that up to the author's extraordinary prose style, which is densely descriptive; and his ability to weave hard-boiled action reminiscent of Lawrence Block together with allusions to another dimension that would make H.P. Lovecraft shiver. Barron's universe walks and talks like this one, but it is haunted by a greater darkness just beyond our influence, making its way toward us with an alarming determination.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Someone's Tiptoeing Inside My Brain

Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1969) is a Mario Bava film starring Stephen Forsyth as John Harrington, or John Harrington as Stephen Forsyth. The names are interchangeable, no? The European hero is preposterously handsome: huge eyelashes, a pile of curvaceous black hair, and a closet full of ascots.

As I watched our suave Euro-dude showering and shaving while describing his habit of killing young women, I had to wonder if Bret Easton Ellis ever saw this film before he wrote American Psycho. Whether he did or not, the narration-by-perfect-yet-certifiable-stud routine is not as original as I once believed:

"No one suspects that I am a madman, a dangerous murderer!"

Not simply a murderer, but a dangerous one.

Later on, Euro-dude trades snotty quips with his angry German wife over breakfast on their fancy terrace. He notices the morning newspaper headline, and says mournfully:

"How sad--another bride killed!"

Yes, if you check out this film, be warned: Brides will die. That's because our hero runs a bridal shop, so he gets first dibs on all the pretty brides-to-be who need killing. Please note: Euro-dude does not call it a bridal shop; he refers to it as "the fashion business" he inherited from his mommy.

This film has so many things to recommend it. I don't know where to start. So I'll just sling it out there:

• jittery camera movement
• dubbing that is either genius or begs for a new translation of the original
• a soundtrack ranging from music box twinkle to shrieking death-a-coming warnings
• saturated late 1960s colors (dig the groovy deep purple/screaming yellow combo)
• actors who snarl, stare, and fume as if they were in a silent movie (which, given the sound quality, they might as well be)

The visual quality depends on how crazy you are. At one point Euro-dude describes a flat-chested model as "37-22-37." Or maybe he was thinking of the combination to his office safe. It's hard to tell, since he's nuts.

After correcting this estimate of her figure--he got the waist wrong by half an inch--the flat-chested woman tells him she's modeled a few wedding dresses in her career. He lets her know she'll have to model them "constantly" if she's hired, because she might not have noticed she's applying for a job at a bridal shop--sorry, Euro-dude--"fashion business." Then he says she'll have to model pajamas and "land-jury." In other words: "Everything a bride might use on her wedding day."

So forget that travel outfit and toss the extra suitcase in the river, girls. All you're going to need is a wedding gown, jammies (he doesn't say what kind, so I guess flannel's okay) and "land-jury."

The killing method involves mannequins and bad dancing. For the rest of the plot, you will have to rent this beauty. Let me just say: When a scene about toast cracks me up so bad I have to hit the pause button, I'm giving the whole movie four stars.

But I'm still not doing justice to Hatchet for the Honeymoon...

When our hero decides to stop messing around with models and focus his considerable craziness on his wife, the story gets much deeper and weirder. In this mid-section of the film Bava's camera work achieves the level of high art. Some of the imagery is stunning and unforgettable. The wife, a dedicated spiritualist, has her own special way of fighting back which is eerie and chilling.

Oh, and there's a suave Euro-cop who doesn't like our hero. When he shows up to investigate the disappearance of a Harrington model, he struts his smooth style and his jurisdiction by saying to 37-22-37:

"There ought to be a law against pretty models going away without leaving a forwarding address."

Yeah. There ought to be a law.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tell Me Something (1999)

Directed & written by Chang Yoon-hyun

In common with Seven, H, and Memories of Murder, this South Korean film is a psychological thriller in which a jaded cop tracks what seems to be an unstoppable serial killer. The paradox of Tell Me Something is: the closer the primary detective comes to solving the case, the more his personal flaws undermine his ability to distinguish the truth among the evidence. In this way filmmaker Chang Yoon-hyun sets up a game of cat and mouse between killer and cop, but also between hero and audience. We see what is at stake for the engaging hero. We also see when and why his reason fails him.

During a summer of intense heat and torrential rain, body parts begin to turn up in black plastic bags all over Seoul: in a crowded elevator, on a basketball court, on a highway. The police team established to solve the case is led by Detective Cho (Han Suk-gyu). Humiliated and tainted by a previous case, and viewed skeptically by his fellow officers, Cho immediately invests too much in this opportunity to redeem himself. Fortunately he has help from another seasoned detective.

Together the two cops rearrange the mismatched body parts and apply all of their experience to unraveling the apparently motiveless murders. Just when they seem to be at a dead end, they conduct a routine interview with a fragile yet attractive young woman, a visual artist, and discover an extraordinary coincidence linking the victims.

Exquisitely shot, well acted, and haunting in its depiction of human frailty, Tell Me Something takes a few turns that challenge suspension of disbelief. Yet it works, because it is both visually stunning and satisfyingly visceral. This is a film for a rainy night when you feel like giving yourself over to a dark, relentless story that could never happen, but, hey, what's that sound on the stairs? No, you go check.

(originally published S. P. Miskowski 11/2/07 12:25 p.m.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Polanski, based on a novel by Ira Levin


For several years I watched this film once a month. It was a comfort cookie, a personal ritual. Along with the glass of red wine and the heating pad, it signaled the happy fact that I was (again) not having Satan's child. Now, as always, that is the job of Mia Farrow.

By the way, this probably won't be my last post about Rosemary's Baby. It is a film I know frame-by-frame and line-by-line. But its sweet complexities, chilling presumptions and amusing absurdities require several essays to do them justice.

I assume most readers have seen the film. But for the benefit of the other six people:

Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor husband Guy move into a big, old (barely affordable) apartment in an infamous building in New York City. Creaky and spooky things abound, and it soon becomes clear (to viewers) that the bloody legends connected to the place are based on real occurrences. The Woodhouses are taken under the wing of an elderly couple named Castevet, who form a surprisingly close bond with the ordinarily skeptical Guy. Some bad things happen, but they are quickly swept under the tasteful throw rugs when Rosemary discovers she is pregnant at the same time that Guy's career seems to be taking off at last.

Every RB fan has a favorite element, one that brings all the others together. Mine is Ruth Gordon. This performance greatly enhanced her career and led to international fame as the 80-something star of Harold and Maude. But I cringe at the sound of Gordon's voice when her RB character, Minnie Castevet, tosses around pleasantries that are not quite right, yet not weird enough to arouse suspicion in our titular heroine.

In fact, the fey and rather dim-witted Rosemary could have figured out the whole plot if she were less shallow. But she fixates on her neighbor's lack of coolness: Minnie's bad home cooking, bad hair, and wall-to-wall carpeting. Minnie's grating pronouncements and quirky mannerisms draw attention away from the acutely bizarre setting, and provide a grandmotherly smugness against which the petulant Rosemary can react.

And Rosemary does react, rather than acting. She is an unformed flower child. Her psyche is so malleable that she tells Minnie and Roman Castevet she doesn't know what she believes. She is a creature Ira Levin (author of another cult classic, Stepford Wives) drew in obsessively accurate detail: The energetic young woman without a clue, the sweetly sexy wife who prefers to let an older, wiser hubby take charge of her.

Rosemary is constantly quoting the men in her life. She quotes her husband, Guy, then her elderly friend and mentor Hutch, then her doctor. She only resorts to quoting a female friend when she has to argue with her husband and she's been severely weakened by prolonged pain. Once the pain subsides, Rosemary returns to the obedient manner of a happy little girl. She eats and drinks what she's told, and becomes so involved in her jolly pregnancy that she forgets all about the rest of the world. All of this is part of the Castevet plan, of course.

If she only had a brain, Rosemary might have figured out that the "long arm of coincidence" Minnie cites is nearly impossible, and the blank spots on Minnie's apartment walls do indicate that the pictures were removed recently and that's a very strange thing to do, and…

Well, watch for yourself. The giddy fun of seeing Rosemary stupidly putting herself in harm's way (and Satan's lovin' embrace) just never gets old.

(originally published S. P. Miskowski 10/31/07 12:12 p.m.)

Vacancy (2007)

Directed by Nimród Antal
Written by Mark L. Smith

Spoiler Warning

Forty-five minutes into Vacancy the idea pops into my head:

"Couples Therapy - Extreme Weekend"

From that moment on I watch for signs that this tiny thriller is a new addition to the self-help horror category occupied by The Game. Not that that would be good…

The film starts with a classic set-up: A husband and wife on the road at night, heading for a visit with the wife's family. They don't get along, and we soon find out why. They are in mourning for their son, a toddler seen in photos but mercifully not represented in flashback.

Blame and guilt and regret and the wife's cranky predisposition explain why she's on happy drugs and he's taken an alternate route to make the grim ride shorter. The cliché about men not being able to follow directions on a map provides an excuse for stopping at a lonely gas station where the price signs haven't changed in decades. The friendly attendant (uh-oh) checks under the hood and tells the couple they are at least thirty miles off track. He's such a nice guy you just know you'll see him again.

A mile down the road, of course, the car dies. So Mr. and Mrs. Imminent Divorce walk back and try the seedy motel near the now-closed gas station. The manager is both greasy and shifty, but he assures the skittish couple that the bloodcurdling screams from his office are on TV. So they check in.

Try to recall the most crummy motel room you've ever encountered. One so layered in grime, and pulsing with cockroach life, you wouldn't dare touch anything. The only feature with any promise: a pile of unmarked VHS tapes.

Hubby tries to kill time watching what first appears to be a slasher flick then possibly a snuff film. Then he notices that the backdrop looks disgustingly familiar. In fact, all of the films were shot in the room he and his wife now occupy.

This is when things are supposed to heat up, but they don't. Because this is also the point at which the writer and director run out of ideas. Which is why I start supplying my own:

What if the husband has signed them up for extreme therapy? The motel manager is the counselor, and the situation is designed to bring the wife and husband back together.

What if the husband has hired everyone else in the story to scare his wife and allow him to be a hero?

The deeper into the story we go, the more this makes sense. Everything that goes wrong is the husband's fault. Maybe that's because he's in control. (Hence The Game.) The plan could backfire when the wife figures it out, and then she has to escape not only from the creeps but also from her grief-scarred, insane husband…


So, as much as I appreciate the subtle acting by Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson as the tormented couple, and Frank Whaley as the manager, Vacancy is a disappointment. It lacks an adequate framing device, which would make it more than a thriller about nice people pursued by freaks. And when I can think up a better plot than the filmmaker, I'm about as grumpy as Kate Beckinsale on prescription happy pills.

(originally published S. P. Miskowski 10/29/07 5:55 p.m.)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Severance (2006)

Directed by Christopher Smith
Written by James Moran
& Christopher Smith

Any intelligent person forced to take part in an office team-building exercise knows how easy it would be to slip from controlled corporate rage to homicide. The creators of Severance understand that feeling. In place of traditional slasher film targets (such as obnoxious teenagers) they have substituted the people we most want to see mutilated and murdered: co-workers.

When their bus breaks down somewhere in an Eastern European forest, several sales employees of the multi-national Palisade Defence have to schlep their belongings to the nearest hotel. There they await instructions from the American executive who planned their trip. The hotel turns out to be a moldy inn equipped with no amenities except weird pie. And every step outside the place lands the unhappy employees in (often excruciating) peril.

Acting Talent
Thanks to a terrific cast that includes Laura Harris, Danny Dyer, and Tim McInnerny (Lord Percy Percy and Capt. Darling of Blackadder fame) there is no need for over-the-top special effects. Don't get me wrong; what is here is truly horrific. But the point of view makes it so. For example, there's a scene in which a character sees something that gets his feet moving a lot faster--only we don't see what he sees. We see the sheer, animal terror in his eyes, and this is just as effective as anything the props department could have dreamed up.

While some horror filmmakers court plausibility with computer graphics, Christopher Smith makes the bolder and more disturbing choice to go natural. All the stunts and threats come from realistic or believable objects, relations, and circumstances. The style works; it hurts to watch.

A couple of the best jokes in this film are a long time coming. Yet they're set up so expertly, you recognize every punch line the second it arrives.

You'll spend about half the film trying to figure out if the force preying on our busload of working stiffs is supernatural, psychological, or real. When you finally know, the answer is satisfying in so many ways. All the pieces fit together as snugly as a perfect jigsaw puzzle.

Break out the good wine. Screen this one with smart friends you want to impress and terrify.

(orig published S. P. Miskowski 10/29/07 3:20 p.m.)