Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I Saw the Devil (2010)

Directed by Jee-woon Kim
Written by Hoon-jung Park

I Saw the Devil is the latest film from Jee-woon Kim, whose dark and dorky comedy The Quiet Family is one of my favorite films (and provided the source material for Takashi Miike's The Happiness of the Katikuris). The Foul King further demonstrated a droll comedic style. The director's elegantly spooky short film "Memories" was a standout in the trilogy Three Extremes II.  And my wish to share with everyone I know the psychological/supernatural horror A Tale of Two Sisters is one reason I started this blog.

I Saw the Devil begins with a van driving through snow and pulling over near a car with a flat tire. Inside the car a young woman is killing time with her cell phone. While waiting for a tow truck to arrive she  makes romantic small talk with her fiance, an ardent and attractive young man who is stuck at the office and can't come to her rescue. The young woman declines an offer of help from the Good Samaritan in the van, but the man doesn't leave.

What happens next infuses I Saw the Devil with a sense of urgency. The Good Samaritan turns out to be a serial killer trawling for victims. This would be just another act of random violence in an unpredictable world, both absurd and tragic, except for one unusual fact. The fiance who is plunged into guilt and vengeance is not an office worker. He's a government agent, a man with extraordinary skills and a killer instinct. So he takes time off work to track down, torment and annihilate the man who killed his beloved.

A similar premise--innocent victim avenged by a relentless loved one--has been used plenty of times. What Jee-woon Kim brings to the revenge film is an adult approach to character behavior. His characters have complex emotional lives. Over the course of the story they face the boundaries of psychological endurance. It is unusual to find a filmmaker of such intensity and virtuosity who focuses on the significance of simple decisions and actions, and on the tiny cruelties and wordless victories of real human interaction.

If this were a typical revenge movie the audience would have to be content with watching the protagonist destroy his enemy. In I Saw the Devil the conflict between the secret agent (Byung-hun Lee) and the serial killer (Oldboy star Min-sik Choi)  yields a couple of weighty moral questions: When and how does violence end? If our hero becomes as intent upon his horrific mission as the killer is dedicated to his evil pursuits, then who is the good guy?

Some over-the-top dramatic action will hold the attention of viewers who are not interested in answering these questions. Adults who are convinced by early scenes to crave an eye for an eye will have more to think about. The final moment of this blood-soaked thriller says it all: Nothing can satisfy our deep-rooted desire to set the world right, following the loss of everything that we love.

13 Assassins

Directed by Takashi Miike
Written by Kaneo Ikegami & Daisuke Tengan

Late in Japan's feudal era the reigning Shogun has chosen as his successor a younger brother whose sadistic and amoral nature guarantees that the country will descend into chaos and war under his leadership. Among the Shogun's administrative officials it is decided that the chosen heir, Lord Naritsugu, must not be allowed to rise to power. Yet challenging the appointed future Shogun would be an act of self-destruction. In order to stop Naritsugu, and to avenge the families he has brutalized, a senior official secretly gathers a group of samurai to try to track and kill Naritsugu.

The samurai enlisted for this cause are grateful for the mission. After years of inactivity most of these men long for a defining moment, a purpose upon which to focus their skills and their devotion to honorable action. They are led by Shinzaemon Shimada (the great Koji Yakusho, in a role every bit as stirring and iconic as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit). It is his commitment to balancing the scales of justice which inspires the samurai who follow him into what may prove to be both a suicidal and unsuccessful quest.

Now and then a great revenge movie comes along to both express and assuage the outrage that remains after an era of extreme moral compromise. This one is courtesy of the master filmmaker Takashi Miike. There is no obvious political statement in the film, but there is a clear moral imperative. In the world of 13 Assassins those who use their power to harm the powerless, and their exemption from scrutiny to behave with dishonor and cruelty, are considered the lowest of human creatures.
Miike knows horror. Not just its formal conventions but its source, deep in the protected recesses of our imagination. Whatever horrific act we can imagine, someone has surely committed for reasons too shamefully selfish to justify.

13 Assassins is listed in the IMDb as Miike's eighty-first directorial project. His mastery of cinematic form and storytelling is everywhere apparent in this period action film. From the first frame to the last, his precise attention to detail rewards the viewer with indelible images. Some of those images are horrific and some are profoundly spiritual. All are in the service of a heartbreaking tale of dishonorable conduct and moral vengeance that audiences can enjoy as pure entertainment and as a balm to the casualties and calamities of our time.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hater by David Moody

First published by its author in 2006 Hater by David Moody was republished in February 2009 by Thomas Dunne Books in the United States and Orion Books in the United Kingdom. The first in a three-book series, Hater was followed by Dog Blood in 2010.

Moody's previous publishing effort, the post-apocalyptic Autumn was originally offered for free online. More than half a million downloads of the novel created enough buzz to lead to a movie adaptation and republication of the five-book series.

The story of Hater begins with a random act of violence between two apparent strangers. The action is then observed by dozens of people on their way to work. Witnesses are torn. Should they assist the hapless victim? Should they try to stop the attacker? Or should they try and make it to the office on time?

"Sometimes having such a dull and monotonous job is an advantage. This stuff is way beneath me and I don't really have to think about what I'm doing." (p. 9)

So says Danny McCoyne, the protagonist in Hater, who arrives at the office a little later than he had planned. With these lines the character introduces his general attitude and sums up a large percentage of modern jobs. We've all been there: moving, talking, and making it through the day, yet mentally zoned out. The only incentive for returning every morning is a paycheck, and there are at least a dozen times a day when that hardly seems worth the sacrifice, the damping down of the soul required for daily survival.

This common state of mind--hovering slightly above and to one side of the physical world--could be relaxing. After all, it is a bit like meditation. It could be adapted into a form of emotional and intellectual self-discipline. But the healthy benefits of meditation rely upon the absence of constant irritation.

Unfortunately, Danny's work environment is not pleasant. His supervisor is obnoxious and belligerent, petty and spiteful. His co-workers can be evenly divided into sniveling kiss-ups and the naturally inane. One of the reasons Danny lingers in his half-there condition is to avoid getting angry enough to erupt at his fellow workers on a regular basis.

When he isn't struggling to contain his temper, Danny is bored stupid by the tedious routine at the government office where he processes fines for parking violations. At the same time, he is a little afraid of the enraged drivers who come barreling into the office hoping to scream their way clear of paying the standard fee to retrieve their impounded vehicles.

At home Danny copes with three small children who compete for his attention and never seem to shut up. His beloved yet increasingly alienated and harried wife finds fault with every move he makes. They seldom make love, and they are always tired. Just as disheartening in a different way, their combined salaries don't go far enough to afford luxuries that might relieve the close quarters and constant sacrifices that currently define their personal lives. They strive to be patient, loving parents, while longing for just one day of freedom, just one whole night of sleep.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. Moody has accurately and vividly described the way a large part of the population in Great Britain and the U.S. manage to get by, week after week, year after year. In every area of the lives we have created, our sanity and our self-importance are chipped away bit by bit.

Surviving urban competition is a continual struggle, a deft balancing act. No wonder, then, that some of us go stark, raving mad. We are playing by the rules in a society that demands we behave properly at all times and then sporadically and extravagantly rewards certain individuals who behave badly, sometimes going so far as to call them "mavericks" and heroes.

We strenuously ignore one provocation after another, all day long, without any sanctified form of release other than music concerts and sporting events, which have come to represent far too much to their devotees. This fact is highlighted in the book when an act of violence at a concert is initially misinterpreted and applauded as part of the show.

The first time Danny witnesses someone losing control and directing aggression at another person, he watches with the same mixture of curiosity and disbelief we've all experienced at the spark of a crisis. In our orderly and unsatisfying world, in the midst of all the mundane activity we have contrived, denial is our most common response to the extraordinary.

Danny goes from denial to caution, and then to a gradually dawning recognition that the violence he observes in various public places may not be a series of isolated incidents, but possibly a rising wave of brutality. Something has gone wrong, and no one will explain how it has happened, or how to remedy it. Most frightening, no one can predict which person will be next, in the role of aggressor or victim.

As our protagonist begins to understand how widespread the problem is, Moody draws a meticulously detailed progression to reveal Danny's shifting consciousness. We travel along with the character, smoothly and plausibly, from denial and shock to protectiveness toward loved ones, and beyond.

The final phases of the story are entirely believable in terms of human nature, and I won't spoil them by giving away too much. Moody has achieved something rare and quite moving, with this book, which is to portray the outer boundary of what people are capable of doing, without making the story seem like pure fantasy.

Danny's actions make sense. Furthermore, few of us attain adulthood without witnessing at least one act of inexplicable violence. In addition, we read about such acts in the news all the time:

"Arkansas man sentenced for killing slow hairdresser."

"Canada bus passenger beheads seat mate."

"Arizona boy charged with killing father 'loved his dad.'"

"Man stabbed to death outside a fast-food restaurant in Oxford Street."

Moody has cleverly taken our constant awareness of such events occurring at the fringes of our lives, and fleshed out the individual scenarios for them. Interspersed with scenes of Danny gritting his teeth through another encounter at work or another argument at home, the author presents situations in which people go ballistic with one another. These moments are scarily grounded in natural, nuanced behavior and are set in a context we can recognize all too clearly.

The beauty of Moody's novel is the way in which it depicts people shifting from abject boredom and self-repression to pure rampage. When it occurs, this tumult of energy is both frightening and familiar--exhilarating in an instinctive, animal sense. Worse, the rush that occurs when Moody's characters resort to base brutality is the most normal thing in the world, every bit as human and real as a family cringing in horror at the fragile periphery of it all.

The final scenes of Hater leave open the possibility of either a thematic or chronological sequel. This may be one reason some of the basic questions raised by the protagonist are not answered satisfactorily. A pre-existing state is hinted at, but not played out entirely. However subsequent installments might develop, the theme of this book will be tough to follow: Maybe we ought to find better, healthier, and more satisfying ways of channeling our innate aggression than putting on trendy clothes and making nice at the office every day.

First published in 2009.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Tragic Life Stories by Steve Duffy

Certain names in a horror anthology’s table of contents will automatically compel me to buy the book. Steve Duffy is one of those names. His modern tales of horror, with their sardonic observations on the foibles of human nature as it traipses through the 21st century, are a must-read.

So when Ash-Tree Press announced the publication of Tragic Life Stories, a collection of nine recent Duffy short stories, I had to have a copy. Now that I have read it, I have made a decision: No one other than my husband gets to borrow it. No one else can even look at it, because it’s my cherished copy. If that makes me selfish, big deal.

Tell you what. I’ll share a little of it with you, here in this post. Then you can go buy your own copy.

In her introduction Barbara Roden notes the shift that occurred when the author of the book decided to move from his early career ghost stories, which resided in the world of M.R. James’ antiquarian books and fireside chats among gentlemen of letters, to tales of terror set in a world quite recognizable to today’s reader. This choice, combined with an astonishing ear for common speech and a fascination with what makes people do what they do, is a defining characteristic of Duffy’s recent writing. The eeriness of his prose is often achieved by introducing something weird but entirely plausible in a situation that is mundane and familiar.

We have been to these places, lived in these shabby yet comfortable apartments and houses, observed the odd behavior of a neighbor or a stranger and said, “Hm. I wonder what that’s all about.” Finding out what that’s all about is central to Duffy’s fiction and that is why, when it hits home, it stays with you.

The title story begins with a writer, Dan, perusing the shelves of a local bookstore. Emotionally stunned following the loss of a significant relationship and the cancellation of a book contract, Dan is engaging in that most human and despicable habit of the unhappy writer. He is trashing the published work of other authors. As he moves from a spiteful summation of the popular titles in his genre, fantasy, to the non-fiction section, his angry wit sharpens. Most of the non-fiction takes the form of what Dan calls “tragic life stories.” These are the drug and rehab and dysfunctional family memoirs that have proliferated over the past two decades and have won a multitude of readers who like to wallow in another person’s sorrow.

While grinding his teeth Dan meets a woman of apparently boundless compassion, who shows great interest in him and his writing. She also loves “tragic life stories.” Given the popularity of such memoirs, his current state of mind, and his attraction to this new, possibly romantic interest, it seems natural enough that Dan goes home and promptly begins writing such a memoir from the point of view of a horribly misused boy. From this point on, Dan is living a lie. But the power of his imagination may be greater than he thinks.

In “Tantara” we see a couple taking a day trip. Isobel is indulging in a favorite pastime, studying an old church in a country village. Pete is indulging Isobel and fighting both his boredom and his hatred for anyone they encounter who appears to be much more affluent than they are. Following a strange incident on the road, Pete and Isobel stop for a bite to eat and Pete’s enmity is aroused by a celebration of locals, but he soon makes a discovery that turns his hostility to terror.

“Certain Death for a Known Person” is a slightly more traditional supernatural story. A young man is visited by a being who demands a bargain to save the life of someone the young man knows and cares for. As horror fans know, such a bargain always comes with a catch. The beauty of “Certain Death” is in the cleverness of that catch.

Donna is a new employee trying to begin her job and establish a routine, but her desk and work area have been commandeered by a team of repairmen on an apparently endless assignment to correct “The Fabric of Things” in the crumbling building. In this surreal story Donna makes it her mission to create and define her role as an employee despite the strange machinations of the ubiquitous repairmen.

The protagonists of “Nightmare Farm” and “Someone Across the Way” are men who sense that something unnatural is occurring, the foundations of their carefully established lives have begun to shift. Yet they are powerless to fight the effects, let alone discover the cause, until it is too late. They have become who they are through inertia and when radical change comes to threaten that identity, they have no skills with which to meet it.

These stories might be, at heart, unbearably sad if not for the razor-sharp wit Duffy employs in each characterization. He knows these men, knows their yearnings and dirty secrets, and he draws them so expertly that we laugh at their self-delusion while we fear for their safety. They don’t even have the ability to engage in camaraderie with other men. In “Nightmare Farm” Jamie takes his partner’s recurring, scream-inducing dreams in stride, but he is terrified by the prospect of having to kill time with Garth, “an alarmingly bearded man with no detectable capacity for banter.”

“Only Passing Through Here” is a spooky tale of a burglary gone wrong–as wrong as it can get. And “Numbers” charts the tangled myths that attempt to explain inexplicable illness and death in the days before AIDS research provided (also unsatisfactory for the human soul) answers.

The crowning achievement of the collection is the superb story “The First Time.” Here memory and middle age reflect upon a breathtaking moment of youthful passion. The boy on the verge of being a man has grown up to be something other than he imagined. He is now haunted by a single act for which he can never atone, and which has altered the course of his life. Despite its supernatural elements “The First Time” is a genre-breaking tale of regret and remembered desire that will linger with the reader for a long time.

Steve Duffy is much loved and widely published, so look for his work in anthologies and future collections. For now you can find a long list of his credits at Goodreads.
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Insidious begins like many family situated horror films. Dad goes to work (he's a school teacher). Mom continues to unpack boxes in the new house (which is actually an old craftsman home, the kind filled with woodwork and old fashioned doorknobs). The kids explore the place's creaky corners while skewed camera angles and sound effects warn us that this world is not as safe as it appears. 

One of the great things about Insidious is the way it captures, simply and without melodrama, the exhausting nature of parenthood. Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) adores her three children. Yet she is clearly at the end of her rope, setting aside her work as an aspiring musical artist and committing all of her energy to this dream life with kids. When she tells her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson) that she can't take much more, her words have weight. Unfortunately Josh is distracted by a need to work that seems practical at first and compulsive on second thought.

The terrible issue at the heart of this family is the care Renai must provide for their son Dalton after he has an accident in the new house. Dalton slips into a state which the doctors can’t label a coma. In fact they don’t understand what is wrong, but the added anxiety and uncertainty push Renai over the edge. While alone with the kids, she begins to see weird things. Baffling and terrifying things she can't explain to Josh. She breaks, and she begs him to move the family to another house. Because this is a smarter than average film and because Josh is a loving husband and father, he agrees.

The Lamberts pull up stakes and relocate to a more modern, less creaky, not so spooky abode in another neighborhood. And things seem okay, until they don't. Renai is shocked and thrown off course again when she sees something, or someone, in her new home.

At this point, because the director (James Wan) and writer (Leigh Whannell) have taken time to lay the groundwork for it, we are allowed an exquisite and all too rare pleasure as viewers: We get to choose among several possibilities that might explain what is going on with Renai and her family. As a grownup jaded by too many superficial plots and overwrought performances, I appreciate the subtlies of Insidious. Its charms worked on me, and although there were places where I had to make a leap of faith I did not regret making them. The pay-off was pure black silk, and worth every penny.
Kudos to the designers, editor and casting director. This seamless production owes a great deal to its experienced cast of actors, inventive costuming and makeup, terrific lighting and a pace that never leaves you pondering for too long.

The Bleeding House screened at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Philip Gelatt’s psychological horror presents another family, one that appears to be the antithesis of the Lamberts. Matt and Marilyn (Richard Bekins and Betsy Aidem) lead an oddly disconnected life at the end of a dirt road miles from town. Their two teenaged children Quentin and Gloria (who only answers to the name “Blackbird”) are quite different products of a dysfunctional upbringing. The son can’t wait to escape the tedium of their anti-social existence. Gloria gives the impression that she would not fit in anywhere, at any time.

While we wonder what made this family such a mess, a man named Nick (Patrick Breen) appears and asks for a place to stay overnight. His car has broken down, he explains. The garage won’t send anyone to help him until morning. He is stranded, and his distress offers Matt and Marilyn a chance to be Good Samaritans. It also gives them a rare opportunity to make conversation with another adult.

At the dinner table Nick demonstrates his gift for gab. He is a believer, a man of morality, and a doctor. His patter seems too refined but this might be because he is at odds with his era. He has a soothing effect on Matt and Marilyn, maybe because they are all too grateful for company. They admit to being outsiders in their community. As the night goes on they allude to their estrangement with society in more poignant terms.

When Gloria argues with Marilyn over the condition of her bedroom–not your typical bright pile of junk, but a stark collection of insects mounted on scraps of paper with a date of death scribbled in one corner–Gloria trumps her mother with an unnecessary and shocking display of cruelty. Now we get it. Something is wrong with the girl, and it isn’t superficial. This is when the evening truly begins.
The Bleeding House is about the allure of brutality for certain people. The film sort of balances this with an unexpected revelation. The family’s secrets are not all shameful and not all bad. Nick is a talkative dude. Some viewers may tire of his endless fascination with good and evil.

The element that kept me going was the film’s somber tone. In an age of snarky films that wink at the audience while hacking limbs and glorifying impossibly powerful villains, it is refreshing to see a movie whose director is not afraid to take his subject seriously.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Rot & Ruin

Shock Room Book Review
Rot & Ruin (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
by Jonathan Maberry
Review by Cory J. Herndon
Jonathan Maberry’s short story “Family Business” in the 2010 New Dead anthology was a character-driven piece that gave some needed warmth and heart to a sometimes bleak (but never dull) volume. It’s a story about family that isn’t cloying or sentimental. In fact it’s a pretty engaging coming-of-age adventure that just happens to take place fifteen years after a zombie apocalypse. Rot & Ruin marks Maberry’s expansion of that short story into a young adult novel that fully realizes the potential of the world glimpsed in “Family Business.” This is a dark, gripping, hilarious, horrifying, touching, dangerous, and most of all real place that’s populated with believable characters–even the teenagers. Rot & Ruin is the Huckleberry Finn of zombie apocalypse novels.
Rather than simply use the original story as a jumping-off point, Maberry completely reshapes and expands the narrative by adding context, back story, and menace–not just the ever-present threat of the undead, but all-too-familiar human villains too. The author spends much more time with protagonist Benny Imura as he faces his impending birthday, his fifteenth since First Night. Benny was just a baby when the worldwide zombie outbreak struck a decade and a half earlier, and remembers only terrifying glimpses. But he is certain he remembers Tom running away from their home with Benny in his arms, leaving his parents to the walking dead. Benny lives with his older brother Tom in a mountain community that hides from the dangerous, zombie-infested world outside behind makeshift walls and guard towers.
In short, Benny has come to believe his older brother is a coward, while local bounty hunters with nicknames like Charlie Pink-Eye and the Motor City Hammer represent the height of human achievement (an admittedly low bar at the end of the world). And so for Benny’s entire life he has blamed his brother for the fact he’s grown up with no parents in a makeshift hometown that might not last.
As if the end of the world wasn’t enough, fifteen is the age at which the community cuts your food rations unless you start contributing to the greater good. Benny now has to find a job, and is ready to do anything that doesn’t involve apprenticing to his brother.
In a sequence which neatly fills in readers on how Maberry’s zombie world works and how people survive there, Benny tries his hand as an apprentice in just about every field except zombie killer. He tries locksmithing, important because locks help people feel safe even if they’re not needed against the dead. He tries fence-testing, acting as human bait to lure in “zoms.” He tries pit throwing, which turns out to be a polite term for mass gravedigger.
Further attempts include tower lookout, fence builder, and “erosion artist” who sketches zombified versions of undead friends and relatives so people might recognize them if they ever see them out there in the wide world. A world into which no one but Tom Imura, Charlie Pink-Eye, and those who brave the post-apocalyptic roads to deliver supplies between survivor towns dare to tread. After finally failing as an artist, too, Benny asks his brother to take him on as an apprentice. It’s his last resort.
Once Benny makes his decision and the die is cast, Maberry keeps the attentive reader glued to the page with tantalizing hints about unseen characters, places, and events past and present. A few clues seem to indicate this zombie apocalypse is the zombie apocalypse–Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, that is. These clues are as well-placed as they are fun and unexpected for a fan of the genre. The author also develops a rich, vibrant supporting cast of friends, neighbors, and enemies for Benny that he dares the reader to get attached to, always a dangerous prospect in a story like this but a welcome one. (At Shock Room Horror, we don’t shy away from danger as long as it’s aimed at fictional characters.)
Maberry pulls off a delicate trick here. Fictional teenagers Benny’s age can easily come off as annoying to readers and to other characters in a story. Maberry has created a fifteen-year-old with plenty of reason to be bitter, and he is. Yet you sympathize with Benny, even when he’s treating his brother Tom, his only family, worse than he’d treat a zombie, or when he’s trying to impress the thugs and killers he idolizes.
It helps tremendously that Maberry never leaves Benny’s point of view. As the youth learns how things really work outside of town, where survivors don’t always fear the dead and humans can be more dangerous than biters, the reader’s own perspective on the seemingly familiar setting changes. Without relying on Twain’s first-person style (knew I could work that in somewhere) Maberry’s persistent adherence to Benny’s POV naturally stokes the slow-burning, uneasy dread. For much of the first two sections (Maberry divides Rot & Ruin into three parts) the potential horrors of Benny’s world lurk in the shadows and only emerge often enough to keep you turning page after page. But in the final third? Answers. Revelations. Twists (naturally). Fear for characters you’ve grown to love, hate for those characters who would harm them, a riveting conclusion that’s impossible to put down, and the welcome possibility readers haven’t seen the last of this extremely expandable setting.
This is the book’s finest accomplishment. Through Benny’s eyes the reader sees how a typically heroic “zombie killer” would, in the real world, be nothing but a pathetic, murderous, and evil grave robber at best–and a cruel sociopath at worst. We learn how a collection of seeming lunatics who dwell unarmed among the dead–sort of like beekeepers working naked and covered in honey–might not be so foolish after all. We see how Nix, a girl and a friend (but not a girlfriend) Benny has known all his life, might be something more to him. Along with Benny, we learn what the family business really is, and what it really isn’t. It’s all masterfully done.
All due respect to the popular “zombie mashup” horror genre typified by Pride and Prejudice and ZombiesNight of the Living Trekkies, and anything where Dracula and Sherlock Holmes team up to fight Cthulhu monsters with H.G. Wells’s time machine; this is how to combine classic themes from American literature, terrific characters, original storytelling, and the remorseless shambling hordes of the living dead. If I may paraphrase one of the great film zombies of the last century: Send more books.
Cory J. Herndon is an author, game designer, and unlikely to last beyond the “trapped in a farmhouse” stage of the coming zombie apocalypse.