Opening up and letting The Devil in with A FIELD IN ENGLAND

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It’s an odd sensation, enjoying a film so much but being hesitant to recommend it to people without knowing them.

A Field in England is fantastic, but it’s also probably not for everyone. 99% of the things I talk about on here (and yes, I’m aware that I’ve been posting at a nearly exponentially diminished frequency) are at least tangentially related to the horror. This film is not. So if your full-sleeve Freddy Kruger tattoo begins to itch at the very mention of venturing outside your genre: leave now.

A Field in England has its share of bloodshed, but it’s certainly not a horror film. Set during the English Civil War, A Field in England is a period piece, one that sees our protagonist shoving his face with magic mushrooms, but is played much straighter than its psychotropic advertising art might lead you to believe.

On Drafthouse’s stellar Blu of the film, there are a few moments in the extra features where the director lists his influences. To be honest, I was quite surprised that he didn’t mention any plays.

It’s not the period language that makes A Field in England feel like it could have been written for the stage, but instead the prevailing sense of absurdity in the first half of the film reminded me of Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter more than it did anything cinematic. Before the film mellows out, the first few minutes (opening in a literal, military barrage) are a barrage of dislocated space and time, partly due to the rush of in medias res dialogue and partly to Wheatley’s quick cuts and purposefully confused camera placement.

This confusion blooms into a kind of road-movie-without-the-road as all the action is restricted to a single field, our three strangers getting to know each other and much of the film’s humor and warmth coming from their absurd exchanges. Whitehead, our bookish protagonist, tries to explain his profession (alchemist, astrologist, etc.) to Friend, a well-meaning rube, but can’t get as far as stars. Friend has never heard of the stars, to which Whitehead replies “Have you ever looked up?”

Wheatley is once again joined by constant collaborators Amy Jump, James Williams and Laurie Rose, worth highlighting because Jump’s script is wonderful, William’s score is hypnotic and Rose’s cinematography is gorgeous. The lot of them form a kind of supergroup that makes each member just as important to the feel of Wheatley’s oeuvre as the director himself. Also returning are a number of actors, none more standout than Michael Smiley, whose O’Neil grounds the film as his goals are straight forward and recognizably villainous no matter how oblique the treasure he seeks or arcane the means of finding it.

The story is slight, but there is a story for those who are not put off/bewildered by some of the film’s arthouse trappings (tableau, black outs, and even a few songs, among other touches). At only 90 minutes, A Field in England moves at a pace that will be sumptuous for those that buy-in and (I’m guessing) drag for those who don’t. The film knows how to structure its escalation and reward patience, though, and it builds to a climactic shootout that has more in common with John Ford than any of the Bergman-esque musings in the 80 minutes prior. The black and white photography is beautiful and it’s definitely a film meant for the biggest screen you can find, it’s nice that the disc comes with a digital copy, but this is not ‘on the go’ watching for your ipad.

One of the things I’ve loved about Wheatley’s filmic output is that although the films share some thematic interests, they are all incredibly different in terms of execution and tone. During the interview included on the disc, Wheatley acknowledges the way that his first four films make a loose quartet and then cryptically hints that he may be moving in a new direction.

Could A Field in England represent the end of an era?

With his next film set to be an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, it’s possible. It’s Wheatley’s first adaptation, and knowing the demands of the story and the talent already attached, it should be a bigger budget than he’s seen. But there’s also a way that High Rise feels like a natural progression from Field.

The premise sounds Hollywood “high concept” when you reduce it to a logline: “a class war breaks out in a near-futuristic apartment complex.” But, Ballard’s novel is much more philosophically inclined than that sounds. First off, the “class war” is middle-upper vs. upper class, not what we’re used to seeing, and the titular high rise itself is more a symbol of the character’s anomie and the isolating effect of modernity than it is set dressing plucked out of Blade Runner.

The last filmmaker (in a long line that stretches back to when the book was originally published, I believe) was Splice-helmer Vincenzo Natali, a fine director, but maybe not a perfect fit for the material. If Field, with its deft juggling of the real and the hallucinogenic, the absurdist and the (deadly) serious, is representative of how Wheatley will approach High Rise, there should be a clear line connecting the adaptation with the rest of his work.

And where does he go after that? Hopefully to complete international renown, getting to make whatever he wants however he wants. After hearing that Wheatley worked on the season opener for the new Doctor Who, it’s easy to see his trajectory continue upward to bigger (and maybe more conventional) projects, but I hope that doesn’t stop him and his collaborators from doing what they do best.

If I may continue this line of armchair producing (or cinematic astrology, if we wanted to keep with the theme), I’d like to make a suggestion: if Wheatley is going to continue with adaptations and wanted to loop back around to discussing English folklore, then there’s probably no better material suited to him than Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.

Just a thought.

Here’s Richard Wells‘ alternate poster for the film, turning one of its live-action tableaus back into a woodcut, bringing everything full circle:

A FIELD IN ENGLAND Richard Wells

 

LEPRECHAUN IN THE HOOD: THE MUSICAL: A NOVEL and a Quick Update

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If you are at all familiar with the work of Cameron Pierce, you’re probably already aware that the dude can have some crazy ideas. When he asked Shane McKenzie and I to help him out with this book he was writing, we were both pretty quick to say yes. It’s called Leprechaun in the Hood: The Musical: A Novel and it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Not only did we have a hell of a time writing it, we also agreed that an unorthodox novel deserves an unorthodox delivery system, so we partnered with Dreadit, the horror Reddit, to serialize the whole book for free. You can head over there and read the first part now or find out a bit more here, then check back every Monday for a new installment. If you like it, please spread the word.

In other news, my horror-soaked-noir novella The First One You Expect is now out from J. David Osborne’s Broken River Books and the response has already been pretty overwhelming (in Spinetingler Magazine and HorrorNewsNet). 

But nowhere more than this double-header Fangoria (!) review from the mighty John Skipp where he not only has some kind words for First One, he also discusses The Summer Job.

I know blurbs aren’t supposed to be this long, but I think I’m going to insist that all future editions just put this on the back cover: 

“It’s like Jim Van Bebber’s THE MANSON FAMILY mates with THE WICKER MAN on the set of Ti West’s THE INNKEEPERS, starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansonn from GHOST WORLD.

This is not to say that it doesn’t play novelistically, cuz it does, actually invoking no one more than Ira Levin in its subtle unfoldment. Albeit with more disembowelment and burning-alive, to go with its loose and thoroughly believable 21st century characterizations. Awesome characters, all up and down.

But here’s the thing. I found myself not just reading the book but watching the movie it supplied to my head. Its narrative flows, and its people speak, and its images resonate like motion pictures, with a seemingly effortless discipline that bespeaks more skill than is obvious on the surface.

THE SUMMER JOB is a really fucking good book, and a definite expansion of Cesare’s cinematic wavelength. Whoever decides to make a movie out of this has a doozy of a challenge.” 

Listen to the man. Buy it! Or, ya know, option it if you’re like some movie producer or something.

Count Your Teeth If You Got ‘Em: THE HANGMAN’S RITUAL

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If you’re a horror person like me, Nick Antosca’s The Hangman’s Ritual draws you in with a cover blurb in which Brian Evenson likens the novel to Oldboy and the Saw-esque slasher The Collector. While that’s a beautiful quote and probably helps move books, it’s a bit of a disservice to the novella.

This is the second longer work I’ve read from this author where familiar setups and narrative tropes are reconfigured and used to great effect. In The Obese it was the Romero-ian siege story, stretched and molded into a delivery system for some very modern, very specific social commentary, which is kind of why the zombie story was invented, even if most of the folks working in the genre seem to have gotten away from that. In The Hangman’s Ritual we begin with the setup made familiar in Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, a man held captive for an indefinite time in a secret prison, but invert it by focusing on a different character: the warden.

Our protagonist, Casper, a low level employee at a Hedge Fund (a business whose workings we’ll have about as much of a grasp on as our protag seems to, i.e. basically none) who is forced, through tragic circumstances, to change positions at the company, working as the concierge at his boss’s private “Hotel.” It’s the modern notion of being a slave to your job taken to its extreme, and the fact that Casper, a depressed alcoholic who is still admirably protective of his young son, seems to be a tiny bit duller than the reader only helps to heighten the tragedy and tension.

Two chapters in, it becomes clear that we can drop the Oldboy comparisons, apparent that Antosca is going to tell his own twisty-mind bender of a story. The Manhattan setting, instantly recognizable/believable for anyone that’s ever lived in NY or the surrounding area, helps to ground the story even as it climbs to its most allegorical heights (a villain with an office filled preserved insects in Lucite, a character’s solitary-confinement induced hallucinations that include a man made of feces).

Being a novella, it’s a quick read but there are plenty of novellas that don’t cover quite the same amount of ground that The Hangman’s Ritual does. Both the narrative and thematic content feels dense, but still it moves like lightning, easily finished in a day. Like any good mystery there are feints, reveals and reversals, some of which you might see coming but still have difficulty with until the end sets everything (well, everything narrative) in place for you.

Like its author, The Hangman’s Ritual is a book that skirts the borderlines of a few genres (horror, mystery, crime, all with a decided literary bend) but should appeal to fans of any of them. It seems like the kind of book destined for a film adaptation, one that might gloss over some of the complexities. Check it out now so you can have smug conversations with your friends that don’t read later. Highly recommended.

THE SUMMER JOB is available now!

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Yeah, this isn’t me reviewing anything, just me letting you know that my second full-length novel is out now. As I posted a couple weeks ago, the early reviews have been off the hook.

Books live and die on word of mouth, so if you pick up a copy (huge thanks for that) and enjoy it: please let others know about it. Honest reviews on amazon and Goodreads help me out immeasurably.

If you’ve got a nook, it’s available at Barnes & Noble’s website, too. Or, if you prefer to shop small, I’m sure your local bookstore would be happy to order you in a copy.

Thanks for indulging me!

The Devil’s Brew: HERE COMES THE DEVIL (2013)

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Adrián García Bogliano’s Here Comes the Devil is many things, but at its core it has the bones of a slowburn supernatural thriller.

At its core, being the key words there. That core is caked in inches, maybe even feet, of coagulated blood.

The film begins with soft-focus lesbian gyrations and severed fingers and only ramps up in explicitness from there, so the mix of gratuitous sex and violence combined with the plot’s more metered leanings may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Not me, though. I love films like this, films that refuse to be boring, that borrow and steal at every turn, but still end up feeling like a cohesive, original work.

And steal Here Comes the Devil does. There’s a Rosemary’s Baby dream sequence, Paranormal Activity shaking house scare tactics, a Park Chan-wook-esque justifiable (?) revenge sequence, a “just one more thing” sequence with a Columbo-ish detective, milky-eyed possession, it even lifts the “ghostly breast manipulation” gag from The Entity. But all of these detours into greatest-hits territory mesh together on Bogliano’s canvas.

In broad strokes, the film is about parents dealing with the return of their two pubescent children (a boy and a girl) after the kids go missing on a cursed hilltop for a day. When summarized like that, the film sounds like something we’ve seen a million times, but Bogliano adds enough detours, complications and reversals to the central mystery that the film goes at least a few places we haven’t seen before, some of them quite disturbing.

We get many traditionally, or at least stereotypically, American story beats transposed to a Mexican setting (Catholicism looming large in the opening sequence, with the mention of a priest, confessional, but its influence becoming less surface-level as the film progresses) by an Argentine writer/director, and the results are uniquely enjoyable. Enjoyable even if it does feel a bit like an exploitation gumbo, especially in the first half, where much of the pastiche is relegated.

Folks expecting their horror films to look a certain way (i.e. MTV slick and cut-laden) might be initially turned off by the film’s aesthetic. There are in-camera zooms, an abundance of split-focus shots and other techniques we’re not used to seeing in our horror flicks (in this decade anyway), but they give the film an almost subliminal throwback feel without the filmmaker having to resort to the hackneyed overlay of artificial weathering.

Stars Laura Caro and Francisco Barreiro do fine work, feeling naturalistic, even when Barreiro’s character has to be purposefully pig-headed (a recurring gag in the film has the couple’s room shaking, the lights flashing, with Felix trying to justify the cause as “people throwing rocks at the house”) and the kids end up sufficiently dead-eyed and creepy.

The film’s available to rent now On-Demand and is doing a limited theatrical run from Magnet Releasing. In what’s beginning to feel like a real dry-spell (at least for the last couple months, where I’ve seen a bunch of films, but didn’t like any of them enough to write them up), you could spend your money on far worse films than Here Comes the Devil.

It’s going to be a big month (i.e. a link dump), plus some thoughts about GOSPEL OF Z

So we’re less than a month away from The Summer Job dropping at all fine retailers on January 7th and the reviews have already begun to roll in. I’m proud of all my work but I think this is far-and-away my best book. I guess that’s not really for me to say, though. On with the links!

Big-time, high-profile website Bloody Disgusting and Ryan Daley started things off and I’m heartened, humbled by the four words that end the review: “Cesare’s best novel yet.”

Nick Cato covered it for The Horror Fiction Review (it’s near the bottom of the page). He had some very nice things to say, even though I was initially thrown by the “smell rating” that accompanies the review. Bottom-line: it’s an actual meter of the books aroma, he’s not saying that it “stinks” (har har).

Sean Leonard, writing for Horror News, offers up the most positive, glittering review I’ve ever received. Glad to see that someone enjoyed the Edible Arrangements gift basket that accompanied every review copy.

Blu Gilliand (always a hero for his praise of Tribesmen and putting Video Night on one of his year end “Best of” lists) wrote about the book for FearNet.

Yeah, I haven’t talked about movies on here for a good long time. But I did talk a little bit about movies (among other things) in this interview with Blu for Horror World, so that might be enough until I get back on here, ramble about something.

In the above interview we discuss a crime novella called The First One You Expect so it’s probably best I end this litany of self-promotion with a look at the cover (by the amazing author/artist Matthew Revert). This will be out in February from J. David Osborne’s Broken River Books:

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As noted elsewhere by people not half as biased as I, my publisher Samhain has really been on fire lately. And the hits continue next month with the release of The Gospel of Z by Stephen Graham Jones. I’ve been an avowed SGJ fan for a while now, so it’s a real thrill to have a book coming out on the same day, from the same publisher, even if I am going to be trounced by his sales figures.

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I’ve gotten a chance to read it early and all I have to say is “Whoa!” Well, that’s not all.

I’ve made this confession before, but I could really care less about zombies. On the big screen we’ve never done better than Romero’s Dawn and we probably never will (because it’s perfect, that’s why). I’ve tried to watch The Walking Dead and couldn’t get into it although I dug the Telltale game (and the comic, once upon a time, even though I’m pretty sure I stopped reading in high school, while all the protagonists still had their limbs, so early, I guess). Whatever marketing synergy/shelf-appeal The Gospel of Z carries has zero effect on me.

Taking place a decade after the bulk of zombie canon, this is not an outbreak story, more of a near-future scenario featuring societal practices that would border on the absurd if they weren’t sold so well. Gospel offers us a world with perilously few people (and very few zombies, while I’m thinking about it), new religions (and cults), a scary-ass “is this kind of society really worth it?” military, suicide missions, flame throwers and exploding goats.

It’s scary, has some really great set-pieces that I could see Hollywood fouling up with CGI, but (like most Jones) never takes one foot out of the realm of “real meal” literature because it’s so well-written (and, in glimpses, very funny). Jones’s books are all very different from each other, it’s kind of his thing (that and they are copious) and this one is no different in the way that it has a very sci-fi feel to it, with its exhaustive invented (or at least specialized) vernacular, peculiar creatures and subcultures. There’s no way to really explain this without over-summarizing, but I think it would be best to say that The Gospel of Z takes a very simple premise (a man who’s got nothing to live for decides to see the girl he’s been living with one last time, even if she’s chosen to go off somewhere that nobody comes back from) and complicates it in the very best of ways.

At one time, apparently, the book was a lot longer than it is now. It’s not something I knew while reading it, but in hindsight it makes sense. Not in a bad way, though, but in a way that this version of reads like something that (if it were marketed as sci-fi, targeted to an audience who’s used to marketing shenanigans) would probably have been stretched into a trilogy (or quadrilogy or some other made up word) by a lesser writer. As it is now, it’s DENSE, almost a mythic reduction sauce, all the fluff melted away to make a book that you damn well better not try to read while you’re sleepy, because it’s certainly not going to hold your hand.

I guess that was kind of a non-review. You should buy this book.

Enter to win some ALL-NIGHT TERROR [UPDATED with the Winners]

Update:

After spending most of the morning compiling a list of entrants (then counting up their entries and supplying them with a series of numbers) the number generator at random.org has chosen your winners.

First, the two runner ups:  Travis Bingaman (who entered through Twitter and I’ll try to get in touch with there) and Stephen Pacino (I think I have your email on your comment) have both won an ebook of their choosing!

The grand prize goes to: Jesse Bollinger! Congrats Jesse! I facebook stalked you after your number came up and I’ve gotta be honest: I’m very happy that you don’t live in a different country, because shipping would have been expensive!

Thank you everyone who played and helped spread the word (especially those who left a review and netted themselves extra entries: Jesse L., Martin R., MichK, and M. Lovato, but didn’t win anything but my undying admiration). I hope to do something like this again soon, although maybe with less bookkeeping needed on my part (the file I’ve been using for this is a list of screennames and numbers, looks like something that gets passed around the NSA).

Hey y’all.

I’m terrible at updating the blog (busy and stuff), but you may have heard that Matt Serafini and I have a new book out.

It’s called All-Night Terror and its a collection of short stories that reads like a classic horror movie marathon, complete with host and wraparound story. I’m really proud of how it turned out, there are three original stories from me and three from Matt (it totals 30,000 words of content and is novella-length, so it should take you about two hours to read).

The cover was created by the wonderful Lynne Hansen and the book comes with a funny-yet-touching forward from Jeff Strand.

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Best part is that it’s only three bucks.

The book was released a couple weeks ago, but I’ve been out of town, so let’s call this its official launch and celebrate in style, shall we?

The CONTEST:

This is a no-purchase-needed scenario, but you’ll have a better chance of winning if you drop the three bucks and read the book.

The PRIZES:

The Grand Prize will be a “Night of Terror” furnished by me.

What does that mean? It means I’ll send you two (2) DVDs from my personal collection (if you follow me on twitter or facebook you’ll know I’m into some crazy stuff, so I’m not liable for any heart attacks), one (1) bag of microwave popcorn, and one (1) paperback of your choosing (either Tribesmen, Video Night or, if you don’t mind waiting until January, The Summer Job).  I’m just ballparking it, but that’s probably like a $40 value.

Two Second Prize Winners will receive one (1) ebook of their choosing (either Tribesmen, Video Night, Bound By Jade, Bone Meal Broth or All-Night Terror if you didn’t buy it to enter the contest you cheap bastard).

How to Enter:

There are a few ways to enter, some of them worth more entries than others.

The simplest (and cheapest) way to enter is to go on twitter and send out this tweet:

I’m looking to win some ALL-NIGHT TERROR from @Adam_Cesare and @Mattfini: http://bit.ly/18TBnYD

You can tweet that as many times as you want, but it’s still only going to count as one (1) entry. If you don’t have a twitter account you can still share this blog (just tell me where to see the share) to get your free entry.

To get FIVE (5) entries, what you have to do is buy the book and then leave a short, unbiased review on Amazon.  Yeah, bad reviews count, but I think you’ll like the book, besides you don’t want me sneezing on your prizes, do you? Amazon flags all “legit” reviews as “Verified” so make sure you actually buy the book before reviewing or it won’t count.

You can grab an additional two (2) entries by copying and pasting your review to Goodreads or your own blog.

Comment on this post with your amazon name or blog so I know that you’ve entered.

I’ll determine the winner using a random number generator on a little before midnight on Halloween (that’s October 31st).

Good Luck!

There should be more prizes!

Okay, well, if All-Night Terror has fifteen (15) reviews on its US Amazon page before the end of the contest, I’ll choose two (2) Grand Prize winners and four (4) Runners Up! What a deal!

The fine print:

Yes, this book is digital exclusive, but before you whine about not having an ereader, remember that Kindle books can be read on any tablet, smartphone, computer or microwave, so nobody’s getting left out.

Yes, I will ship overseas, but just know that I’ll be sending region one DVDs so I hope you have a regionless player.

Yes, you can do everything on the list and wind up with a whopping twelve (12) entries!

Yes, I’ll work with the winner and give them some options regarding DVD prizes. I don’t want to send anyone a disc that they already have. These will be store-bought discs, no cheapo dollar-store stuff or absolute dreck. Okay, maybe some dreck, but it’ll be PREMIUM dreck.

Making sure your door is locked two or three times a night with YOU’RE NEXT

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Last night I attended a preview screening of Adam Wingard’s You’re Next and before I entered the theater I was talking with a friend who’d just seen the film at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival. I’d heard good things since the film premiered at festivals a few years ago, but I still had to ask him what he thought. His answer was “it’s really fun.” It was not a negative comment, but still something that perplexed me, given the film’s dark-bordering-on-nihilistic advertising.

He was totally right, the movie is fun. It’s also excellent.

Right from the opening sequence the filmmakers suffuse You’re Next in a cloud of black comedy that is completely at odds with the film’s marketing, but so very welcome. Seeing this with a packed Philadelphia audience, I can tell you that this is a movie that plays and plays well.

The story of a large, wealthy family that finds their remote mansion under siege by a pack of crossbow and machete-wielding killers, You’re Next uses its minimal downtime effectively. Before the situation escalates, we get a good sense of the family dynamics and a healthy dose of laughs. Once the killing starts, the tone of course shifts towards the dire, but You’re Next never quite wipes that evil smirk off its face.

You’re Next trades the moral ambiguity of Straw Dogs and the dourness of the more recent The Strangers for crowd-pleasing moments that absolutely kill in a packed theater. This may be the home invasion subgenre at its most accessible, but that is certainly no reason to discredit it. I don’t want to over-emphasize the “fun” of the film, because it still offers scares and gore in spades (with more than one memorable jump scare), but it’s the mixing of tones that makes this film work.

In the most recent issue of Rue Morgue there’s a chart showing how Wingard and company (writer Simon Barrett, Joe Swanberg, etc.) find themselves pulling double and triple duty on each other’s films. I’ve seen most of the films on that chart and while I’ve loved some of them and not others, I have to say that I think You’re Next is the group’s best effort to date. When Larry Fessenden plays one of the first characters we meet and then Ti West pops up ten minutes later, the beginning of the film can start to feel a bit like the It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World of horror directors, but the presence of these familiar faces never feels like anything other than “we’re getting our friends together to help with this movie.” Something that is truly admirable, given how great the final product turns out to be.

The cast all performs commendably, even the members not known for their acting, but the real standouts are Shari Vinson and genre superstar Barbara Crampton. Vinson turns in one of the most memorable “final girl” performances in a long while and it’s great to have Crampton back on screen (hers is a performance with depth, a refreshing change of pace from the way that most genre stars are utilized as stunt-casting). These two performers are marvelous and I hope that this film’s wide distribution means that we’ll be seeing more of them soon.

Talking with a group afterward, it seemed that the film’s third act was also its most divisive aspect. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that I think everything about the ending is layered in the film’s first half and cohesive with the thematic content at work (chief among them economic entitlement and quarter-life malaise). Basically, people are always going to find narrative threads to pull at, but that doesn’t mean that a film is any less enjoyable for those that don’t feel the need to compulsively nitpick.

With the discussion of “simple vs. smart” taking place recently in fandom with regards to Pacific Rim, You’re Next is a simple film that approaches its premise in an abundantly smart way.

Highly recommended, also highly recommended that you try to see it with an audience.

Bonus, if you’re into seeing people be put down for their poor grammar, someone started a twitter account that retweeted people using the improper form of you’re when talking about the movie. The account seems to have been suspended, but it was funny while it lasted.

JUG FACE and some other odds & ends

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Chad Crawford Kinkle’s debut feature Jug Face is not the kind of film we get to see often. That’s a good thing.

Probably best billed as Winter’s Bone meets The Children of the Corn, Jug Face has a bit more going for it than that. Although it is neither, the film locates the sweetspot between charming indie-feature stocked with enjoyable character actors and splatter-filled Southsploitation sicky.

Slick photography and fine performances belie the fact that this film probably cost very little to produce, making the movie a testament to the “talent and ideas over money” philosophy.

Although the protagonist Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) and her family belong to a strange religious sect, what I like about Jug Face is that very early on in the film it dispenses with the ambiguity as to whether the pit that the characters worship has supernatural power. Although some of the trappings are there, this is not a film akin to Martha Marcy May Marlene or The Wicker Man where humans are the only monsters, here we’ve got a powerful entity that holds sway over the character’s lives and watch as they react to it.

This is a rural horror story the likes of which we never really get to see: one that treats its characters with dignity. The codifiers are all here: moonshine, a mistrust of the outside world, a dash of incest, creepy old-world religion, but the Kinkle never belittles his characters or treats them like hillbilly rubes. This not only makes his characters feel less like caricatures but it also makes the horror hit home a bit harder.

Nowhere is this dignity more in evidence then with Sean Bridgers’s character Dawai, the simple but kindly soothsayer of the group. Dawai is a character torn by responsibility to the girl he loves and both the supernatural and mental burdens he’s been handed. Bridgers was great in The Woman, but this character skews much closer to the affable lackey he played on Deadwood and it’s nice to see him back as a good guy. Carter is great as well, selling the disastrous decisions that Ada makes as not selfish but human. The cast is rounded out by Larry Fesseden and Sean Young (playing one of the creepier mother characters in recent memory).

Through a rural horror lens, Jug Face deals with the unchanging nature of fate and the difficulties of youth in a surprisingly deft way for a film with such a scant runtime and this much blood.

That said, this brings me to the lone issue I had with the film: the lackluster final few minutes. The ending of the film does not feel out of place either thematically or in the plot, but without giving anything away, it just feels like the movie holds on a scene and a half longer than it should. Despite my personal hangups with the ending, the film still offers a lot to love and I look forward to whatever Kinkle does next.

Jack Ketchum fans will recognize the film’s two leads from Lucky McKee’s The Woman, but that’s not the only crossover as the film was made by the Andrew van den Houten’s production house, Modernciné. Along with sharing producers, it boasts a score by Sean Spillane and ends up feeling like an easy recommendation to make if you enjoyed The Woman.

I purchased the film through Vudu, but it’s also available on itunes. I would imagine that other VOD options are forthcoming. You want thought-provoking original horror, check it out.

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that January 7th, Samhain will release of my second full-length novel: The Summer Job. If you like to be way ahead of the game, the books available to pre-order now through amazon, B&N, etc. Check out the cover:

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If you’re looking for more info about that, I discuss The Summer Job and more over at this interview. Thanks to Jason for the questions.

MANIAC: West Coast Edition

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Horror fans whine a lot. I’m not saying “every horror fan but me” whines a lot. I whine plenty, too. It’s just one of the things we do as a fanbase, and nothing sends us into a whining-tizzy quite like remakes.

But this has been the year where cinema effectively asked us if we’d like a little cheese with that whine and given us not one, but now TWO, remakes that are exciting, original films in their own right.

Ignoring the buzz/backlash/apathy-cycle that seems to have occurred, I quite enjoyed Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead. It was a film that made smart decisions with its source material, even if it didn’t follow all those decisions to their most satisfying end.

Now we’ve got a remake of Willam Lustig’s 1980 grime-caked classic, Maniac, and once again, the success of this film is all about smart decisions.

I have an interesting relationship to Lustig’s original. It’s one of those films I come back to, even when every viewing it makes me feel pretty terrible.

That’s the kind of movie it is, though. You need twelve showers and a handful of steel-wool to get Joe Spinell’s sweaty visage out of your mind. Freshman year of college, when I was challenged by my roommate to show him a “real scary movie”, I screened it for a group of friends. I know, probably no better way to get the girls in the dorm to take notice.

A few years later I got to see it projected at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, with Lustig in attendance. Seeing it on the big screen only enhanced the film’s “is it pure, meritless exploitation or isn’t it?” vibe.

Even before the first drop of blood is spilled in the remake, director Franck Khalfoun and co-writer/producer Alexandre Aja have already made a great change to their version: this Maniac is set in Los Angeles.

It may not be a flattering representation, but the original Maniac is one of the most quintessentially New York movies lensed this side of Woody Allen. It’s not only a “grindhouse” film itself, but an invaluable document of midtown Manhattan sleaze.

A modern day Maniac set in post-Guliani New York would not work. A Maniac set on the neon-soaked streets of L.A.? Yeah, that’ll work. And it does, the Drive-ish color palette lends a real beauty to the first-person cinematography.

Speaking of first-person…

Ever since Hitchcock’s camera pushed into Janet Leigh’s window at the beginning of Psycho, the serial killer subgenre has been inextricably tinged with voyeurism. Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac exploits this to the fullest, presenting the majority of the film in first person from Frank’s perspective. The choice not only makes us complicit in Frank’s crimes (this feeling is as close as we come to the deliberate unpleasantness of the original), but offers a great vantage-point from which to witness the protagonist’s psychological decay, hallucinations and all.

Let’s talk about our new Frank, then. The first words out of any horror fan’s mouth when confronted with a remake of Maniac will invariably something like “But no one can replace Joe Spinell!” Which is where the new version succeeds again: it doesn’t try. Young, bright-eyed and unimposing, Elijah Wood is basically the anti-Spinell. One of his first victims even comments that he’s not what she expected, then goes on to describe the sweaty, pockmarked Spinell.

Although Wood spends much of the film off-screen, glimpsed mostly in reflection, his performance is strong. The character and plot remain mostly unchanged, but when Wood’s Frank voices his pathetic invocations to his mommy, there’s something new brought to the character. The perspective even changes the most familiar aspects of the film, as the subway stalking sequence is now made even more uncomfortable by following Wood’s gaze as it goes from innocuously inquisitive to openly hostile to violent killer.

This time around the “psychologically real” aspects of the plot are downplayed, which is smart because Khalfoun lets the metaphor-dense imagery of Frank’s mannequin’s speak for itself. The soundtrack (from single-name composer Rob) also helps here, as the synth-heavy score and ingenious use of the serial killer standard “Goodbye Horses” (Buffalo Bill’s jam from Silence of the Lambs) cuts away some of the grime without trivializing (or romanticizing) the impact of the violence.

The new Maniac is just as downbeat, gory and confrontationally problematic as the original (Do the filmmakers intend Frank or Ana as hero? Why do we find ourselves invested in the love story subplot? Why is every woman Frank encounters centerfold-gorgeous?), but it is filmed with enough originality, verve and intelligence to not only justify its existence, but make it a strong film that can stand alone.

We’ve entered a new age in horror fandom: the age of the palatable remake built on good intentions and wise decisions. Maybe we’ll have to whine about something different.

It should also be mentioned that this blog has effectively turned into me writing up thoughts on movies I rent on VOD (movies are streeting months earlier in this format), but I’m still a physical media guy until the day I die. Hey, IFC Midnight, how about figuring out a way to give early-adopters who rent your films on VOD a discount on the disc when it eventually comes out? I want some commentaries and other extras, but paying for something twice is usually more than I can swing.