A Big Night

I doubt that number still works but what's the harm in trying?

I doubt that number still works but what’s the harm in trying?

I was fifteen when Brian Keene’s The Rising came out and I’m pretty sure I read it within the first month the Leisure mass market edition was available.

I say this not to bolster fifteen year-old me’s street cred, that ship sailed a long time ago, but to give you some context as to how old I am (not very) and how long I’ve been into horror fiction (a good percentage of my life).

Without someone to show you where you’re supposed to be starting as a reader interested in this stuff, I imagine a lot of people my age took a similar path through the genre. It starts maybe a little precociously, with Stephen King when you’re too young to appreciate him.

Screw ‘appreciate’, I was too young to string a few pages of King together when the man’s legend first struck my interest. In grade school I took out a slim biography on King from the library (large print and lots of pictures, a biography clearly meant for younger readers. Which is really a bizarre target demo, if you think about it) and used it as the basis for a book report. How young was I? I don’t quite remember but the “report” took the form of a clothes hanger mobile, if that gives you an idea.

So, realistically, reading King was still a few years away but the great thing about the early-to-mid 90s for a kid with this specific interest was that R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series existed as a placeholder to guide that transition from The Poky Little Puppy to Cujo.

Not to knock Stine, but I remember feeling like I was outgrowing Goosebumps even while I was consuming (read: freebasing) them. It was both that magnetic pull of King and that weird inferiority complex that I felt as a young boy getting his books from the children’s section of Borders when I just knew that I was meant to be browsing the “grown-up” shelves.

When my ability caught up with my will, I started with the short story collections, taking little bites, experimenting with books on tape (Nightmares & Dreamscapes, I distinctly remember Whoopi Goldberg reading about a teacher shooting a roomful of little kids and it broadening my definition of horror), and wading into the pool.

Okay, I’m digressing a lot, we’ve got to move this along. Where does a young horror reader of my vintage go after King? Well if you’re like me and you have parents who were into reading but not into reading horror, you go for another big name: Poe. Which, again, proves difficult, even once you’ve got modern style and diction down and are blazing through King and a surfeit of tie-in paperbacks based on movies (I vividly remember reading the novelization of 1998’s thriller Disturbing Behavior and the passage beginning “[female character’s name] knew what guys liked”) and games (Warhammer 40k, natch).

Finally, once a few years pass and you gain an awareness of branding and publishers, you notice that two of the books on the “New in Paperback” endcap at Waldenbooks* have similar looking covers and boom!: you’re in deep with the Leisure horror books line. At that point, if you hit it at just the right time, you were set. Trying to keep a correct chronology is tough looking back now, but within a three to five year window those paperbacks exposed me to Jack Ketchum, Richard Laymon, Edward Lee (his “tamer” stuff which isn’t really tame at all), Ray Garton, John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow (which made me go back to the Skipp/Spector years, I guess I’m part of the first generation who can make that claim, which is cool because Goodfellow’s still kicking all the asses), Tim Lebbon (Berserk, mmmmm::Homer Simpson drool::) and, (I’m pretty sure) my gateway author into the line: Brian Keene.

Wait wait wait, why is this post called “A Big Night” again?

Give me a second, I’m getting there.

Photo courtesy of Scott Cole's dogged reluctance to turn his phone off during the presentation.

Photo courtesy of Scott Cole’s dogged reluctance to turn his phone off during the presentation.

Last night my buddy Scott and I attended a reading and signing at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The guests were Laura Lippman and Duane Swierczynski** and they were both excellent.

Since I’m such a class act and unwilling to perpetuate stereotypes about twenty-somethings, I turned my cell phone off during the presentation. By the time I turned it back on my Facebook messages were ringing off the hook.

“You’re on Brian Keene’s Top Ten of the Year list!” was the gist.

Whoa, back up (again).

So the night before this I’d been tagged by buddy (and generous, tireless pre-reader) Tod Clark into one of Brian Keene’s facebook posts. He alluded to the possibility that a few other authors and I would be getting a mention on the next episode of his podcast, The Horror Show. As someone who’s been listening to the show this bowled me over, as you can expect, but I figured the mention would be in passing.

For about as long as I’ve been reading Keene’s work he’s been making yearly top ten lists and (even if they don’t stretch back that far, his various blog posts and non-fiction pieces were quick to name-drop seminal works) I always take his recommendations seriously, especially in the time before I was thinking about writing and looking to broaden my genre reading.

It’s surreal to hear him (podcast link and full list complete with book links reprinted here) put Deadite’s 2014 re-issue of Tribesmen on a list with Bryan Smith (another Leisure author I was reading!), Stephen King, Laird Barron(!!!), friends John Boden and Jonathan Janz (dopey picture with Janz here), and a few other writers I clearly need to check out.

It feels real good, but still surreal, especially when taking into account the reverence with which Keene goes on to discuss editor Don D’Auria later in the show.

It feels weird because, well, throughout high school and college I wanted to be one of those Leisure authors. It was my main goal, while living in Boston I had discussed as much with Nate Kenyon (a Leisure author I tracked down and harassed into having lunch with me), and my first novel, Video Night, was written with that market in mind. It was a goal that began as a wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if? pipedream as a kid, worked its way into a vague well maybe when I’m a lot older… in my late teens and then became a schucks-I-guess-we-won’t-know-how-that-would-have-turned-out bummer when the publisher folded in 2010.

Things, clearly, turned out well (and much sooner than expected) in the end. I got to work first with John Skipp (still my spirit guide), then with Don D’Auria at Samhain, then everything came full circle as that first book with Skipp was re-printed with a rad cover and I’m on this list and oh my god I need to go lay down it was a big night.

Huge thanks to Mr. Keene.

*Whoa, bookstores in malls! Remember that? Ever notice how the spot that used to be the Waldenbooks in your mall is, like, cursed now? Mine was a Journeys shoes for a hot minute. I think it’s now an As-Seen-On-TV money laundering front.

** Yup, both crime writers, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that you’ve got to diversify your genre reading, yo!

Smashing Spirits in the Face with HOUSEBOUND (2014)

housebound

In its two hour runtime, Gerard Johnstone’s Housebound has a lot of plot, a lot of ideas, a robust cast of characters, and a lot of gags (both of the splattery and ha-ha varieties, sometimes with significant spillover). This density is part of what makes it a great, refreshing film, but it’s also what makes it a hard film to discuss without spoiling.

The story takes several unexpected digressions, each of them feeling like a riff on a different sub-genre. While never feeling disjointed, this is still a film that can accurately be said to evoke Poltergeist, The People Under the Stairs, and Peter Jackson’s early splatschtick (probably a hacky comparison that every blogger has made, this being a New Zealand production, but not a comparison that’s untrue. In a few shots the blood even has that Dead-Alive pinkness to it, something in the water, maybe?).

Possibly the best, spoilerphobic, way to describe the film is as the ultimate skeptic’s haunted house movie.

The film starts with a botched ATM robbery and concerns a twenty-something screw-up (Morgana O’Reilly) who is court-ordered to (haunted?) house arrest with her kooky mother (Rima Te Wiata) and step-father. While stuck there she does some investigating into the house’s mysterious past. That’s about all the plot synopsis we need to get into.

Housebound is keenly aware of horror tropes and at constant work to subvert them. Take for instance our protagonist. Kylie (O’Reilly, who’s wonderful here) doesn’t hide from threats, she attacks them head on. On paper Kylie may sound reminiscent of You’re Next’s cunningly competent Erin (Sharni Vinson), but this being a straight-up horror-comedy, Kylie’s agency blows right past “strong” and into the realm of “pathologically aggressive.” This virtue/flaw is fun, and even something another character comments on late in the film.

The subversion of horror clichés doesn’t stop with the characters and their upheaval of archetypes, sometimes a joke is made out of strict adherence to clichés. There’s a great bit right near the climax of the film where the pace halts so Kylie’s psychiatrist can define “dissociative personality disorder.” It’s a scene we’ve seen so many times that its inclusion in a film as savvy as Housebound (and where it’s located)becomes something that made me laugh out loud.

It’s important to note that while a comedy, Housebound is not a parody. What sets it apart from something like Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil or Cabin in the Woods (both movies I like a lot, so don’t take that as a dismissal) is that Housebound’s aware of horror tropes, but its comedy and plot is not shackled to them. The film is never too in-jokey, never does disservice to the story or characters in order to service something “meta”, and never feels like a movie your friends who aren’t “into” horror wouldn’t get.

The film’s broader slyness is perfectly encapsulated in the character of Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), Kylie’s personal rent-a-cop security detail and, it turns out, a paranormal investigator in his spare time. It would be easy for the film to treat Amos like a total joke, and the first scene where he whips out his tape recorder and tries to sweep the house for EVP is very funny in a “get a load of this guy” kinda way. But Johnstone grants Amos a usefulness, sweetness, and competency that it’s hard to give real-life reality show “ghost hunters” (even if the film is totally against the idea that the cosmic mysteries of the universe will somehow be cracked wide open by a bunch of guys with chinstraps and cassette tapes).

Are there some jokes that don’t land? Some moments that clunk? Certainly, but what’s remarkable in a film that feels this quietly ambitious is how much of the material works. And for a debut feature to have this much going for it, I can’t wait to see what Johnstone does next.

See it before the (already announced) remake so you can feel superior.

P.S. Saw this while doing a little editorial research and it’s a pretty sick burn:

If Housebound sounds up your alley (especially if you want the right to some guilt-free whining), drop the couple bucks to see the film legitimately.

P.P.S. Now that I say that I must say: I bought this via Xbox’s Xbox Video app (because it was slightly cheaper than Vudu) and the streaming was AWFUL. The service froze at key moments, the audio continuing, so I had to rewind several times. It really kills the momentum of a movie and if streaming is truly the future of content distribution these services have got to sort crap like this out.

Then, to doubly kick myself, I saw that the movie was already out on blu-ray (as an amazon retailer exclusive, which is a new one on me) for just a couple bucks more than my sub-par digital purchase. If you’re going to go the route of buying over renting: go with the disc. Support physical media because streaming is the devil.

Take My Wife, Please: HONEYMOON (2014)

honeymoon

A lot of modern films, sometimes much to their detriment in a Screenplay 101 kinda way, take Chekhov’s rifle extremely literally.

But few films display the discipline that Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon does while turning every single prop introduced before the 45-minute mark into its own Chekhov’s rifle, poised to explode in the second half without the audience knowing quite where it will fit in.

Rope? That’s going to get some use. The idiosyncratic call-and-answer pet-name the protagonists repeat? That comes back. The camcorder? Double yup, both for its form and for its expositional content. The skewer used to cook s’mores?

Not even s’mores are sacred in Janiak’s world.

All of this planting and revisiting is necessary, because the best way to describe Honeymoon without spoiling it is that: it’s a horror movie that’s fond of sci-fi but it likes to use the native language of the mystery to communicate.

Wait, that was all confusing, let me start again.

Every horror fan likes to whine, but they’re not often specific enough when they do their whining to effect change.

Well then, you ask: I’m a horror fan, so what’s my biggest problem with genre cinema, even when you get to its more edgy and indie fringes?

Answer: I’m annoyed by horror’s propensity for using the most broad-based, over-used fears to work with. I think that whole “find a universal fear to exploit so everyone can relate” tactic is garbage.

Fear of the dark, claustrophobia, fear of the “other” (whether they be bumpkins or whatever), fear of histrionic bodily harm. Those fears all get a lot of play and it’s not that Honeymoon doesn’t touch on any of them, it does, but those aren’t the main interest.

Fear of intimacy? Fear of commitment? Fear of starting a family? Fear of second-level betrayal, a violation of who you thought someone you loved was? Those are the kind of paranoia deep-cuts that don’t get a lot of play in modern horror cinema. What Leigh Janiak (who not only directs but co-writes Honeymoon) understands is that specificity does not always upend relate-ability.

I am not married, but I understand getting into a fight with my girlfriend. I have not had the displeasure of discovering my girlfriend cold and lost in the Canadian wilderness, but I can understand that sick double-edged sword of fearing for both her vulnerability and possible culpability in the act. And that’s what a well-made, confident film can do: it can use the emotions its audience has experienced as analogues for the emotions it hasn’t.

Why am I being so vague and so wordy when talking about Honeymoon? Well, mostly because I’m such a spoilerphobe that I don’t think I’m capable of discussing the specifics of Honeymoon’s plot without completely giving up the ending.

Honeymoon is a movie that would lose all power, may even fall prey to being called “predictable” if it wasn’t capable of subverting your expectations. But subvert expectations it does, even with its first line of dialogue.

Honeymoon is the rare horror film where the actors are tasked with doing most of the heavy-lifting. Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie are not only the stars of Honeymoon: they are the only actors on screen for 98% of the film.

What’s interesting about these stars is how I (and I’m guessing a lot of other American viewers) perceive them before the movie begins.

These are two of the most British/Scottish actors I can think of. Leslie rose to prominence in a supporting, but memorable, role in Downton Abbey, but later traded in her maid’s uniform for furs when she moved beyond The Wall to join the Free Folk as Ygritte on Game of Thrones. Likewise, Treadaway plays Victor Frankenstein in Showtime’s (unbelievably good, so much better than its premise should allow) Penny Dreadful.

Picking up the Blu-ray and looking at the above-the-title stars, I just assumed that Honeymoon was a British movie, one of those flicks that is prefaced as having been “awarded funds from the National Lottery.” That British-ness brings with it a surfeit of preconceptions. I was prepared for some folk horror, maybe some Hammer/Amicus-tinged Gothic melodrama.

But the film’s not British and doesn’t fall into either of those catagories, it’s a movie about Americans (Brooklynites, at least for Treadaway’s character, Paul) who go honeymooning in a remote lakeside cabin in Canada.

It’s that kind of displacement that starts a movie that has, at its core, a “are you really the person I married?” mindfuck. So touché, film, I officially don’t know whether I’m supposed to criticize your star’s accents or not. Their inconsistencies (and even a few egregious ADR inserts) could very well be part of the text, could be what Janiak wants. But even that stuff doesn’t matter because, whether it’s the performances or the script, I buy Leslie and Treadaway as a couple.

If any of the stuff above sounds at all like I didn’t like Honeymoon: it shouldn’t. I enjoyed this movie as a whole and loved the last fifteen minutes so damn much. In fact, it’s one of those movies I’m really sad I was asleep at the wheel for its theatrical/VOD release, because it has a handful of stylistic and thematic links with Starry Eyes, so much so that would I really have to think about which movie I prefer.

Many debut feature films feel like debut features. Even when they’re great that greatness often feels like it’s carrying an asterisk. They have indulgent dialogue, deep flaws in logic, and stylistic flourishes that have to be overlooked as soon as the director makes a newer, superior film, but here Leigh Janiak has made a movie that doesn’t possess any of those blemishes. She’s honed Honeymoon into a sharp one hour and twenty seven-minute blade, a blade that’ll make audiences feel the shock of its body horror (easier, when the gag is right) and the sting of loss (a much more advanced maneuver).

Without spoiling it: damn are a few of those last bits good.

Guest Post: THE NIGHTMARE GIRL Playlist

Things would be so much easier if Jonthan Janz was a jerk.

Because, even though I don’t want to be, in the most base and reptilian sector of my lizard brain I am completely jealous of him.

Why? Well, first of all he’s a talented writer, one who is able to write with an earnestness, a sobriety, that’s very reminiscent of the glory days of mass market horror fiction. He’s also incredibly prolific. Volume-wise he’s able to write circles around me, if his release schedule is to be believed. Last of all, since he’s like six five and jacked: when you’re standing next to him at a convention it suddenly becomes way harder to sell books.

janz and adam

I don’t often feel sort.

But the problem is that Jonathan Janz is not a jerk, he’s incredibly gracious and affable.

So how could I turn down a chance to have him guest post here? So buy his new book, The Nightmare Girl, and then sit back and enjoy his playlist. When you’re done here, my own musical choices for Exponential are over on his site.

nightmaregirl-the-h

Hey, all. You might know me, you might not. But if you’re hanging out at Adam Cesare’s blog, you’re probably half-unhinged anyway and won’t hold my eccentricities against me.

My brand-new novel is called THE NIGHTMARE GIRL. Before I tell you some songs I either heard or played in my head while reading and researching the story, let me share the synopsis with you:

Playing with fire has never been more dangerous.

When family man Joe Crawford confronts a young mother abusing her toddler, he has no idea of the chain reaction he’s setting in motion. How could he suspect the young mother is part of an ancient fire cult, a sinister group of killers that will destroy anyone who threatens one of its members? When the little boy is placed in a foster home, the fanatics begin their mission of terror.

Soon the cult leaders will summon their deadliest hunters—and a ferocious supernatural evil—to make Joe pay for what he’s done. They want Joe’s blood and the blood of his family. And they want their child back.

In other words, it’s a nice, wholesome, family kind of story.

My tastes in music are eclectic, which’ll be expressed in the below playlist. So without further preamble…

  1. Not to Touch the Earth,” The Doors: There’s a fire at the end of THE NIGHTMARE GIRL. A big, terrible fire. There’s chaos and carnage, bloodshed and madness. Jim Morrison’s hypnotic vocals and the rest of the group’s frenetic discordance perfectly capture the insanity of my finale.
  1. Concerto in G minor for 2 Cellos, Strings and Basso continuo, RV 531; I. Allegro,” by Vivaldi (Performed by Yo-Yo Ma): Yikes! With a title like that, you might ask, how on earth can a song be enjoyable? Well, as mentioned already this is a song by Vivaldi played by Yo-Yo Ma. And when you combine two masters, the results are going to be fantastic. This song is intense. It’s also classy, elegant, and at times, foreboding. This song doesn’t really remind of the story so much as it reminds of the writing of the story. I would often play this one first to get my mental engine primed. Then the words would catapult onto the page.
  1. George Strait’s “Carried Away”: The love between husband and wife is crucial to this story, and this has long been one of my favorite George Strait ballads. And before you judge me, yep, I enjoy country music sometimes. Especially George Strait’s music, which I connect to in a number of ways.
  1. “Disposable Heroes,” Metallica: The lyrics of this song have nothing to do with my story (It’s a war song, after all), but the frantic, punishing aura of the music has everything to do with THE NIGHTMARE GIRL. It’s a book that flies by (in my opinion), and when bad things start to happen, that already brisk pace doubles and triples in speed. When re-reading my novel during the editing process, I would often try to capture the speed of this song. It’s up to you to decide whether or not I did.
  1. “I Saw God Today,” by George Strait: Sorry to include two songs from the same artist on here, but yeah, this guy tends to sing songs with heart, and this one is no exception. One of the primary elements of many of my novels is a dad’s love for his kids. In THE NIGHTMARE GIRL, Joe Crawford cares deeply about his own daughter and the boy he tries to save from an abusive home. The aforementioned song is all about the transcendent love a dad has for his kids, and it would echo in my mind from time to time as I thought about my characters.

That’s all for now. Thank you, Adam, for having me here. And if any of you happen upon this post and have not yet read Adam Cesare’s work, you need to amend that as quickly as possible. EXPONENTIAL or THE SUMMER JOB would be great places to start.

I was going to trim that last part where he talked me up, but I didn’t want anyone crying censorship.

On Anniversaries and the Viability of ‘Old’ Work

T-Shirt Art by Nick Gucker

T-Shirt Art by Nick Gucker

This week marked the book birthdays for Video Night (two years old) and The Summer Job (one). I’ve been thinking about that.

Warning. Mushiness ahead:

Browsing Goodreads, cyberstalking myself as I’m wont to do, I came across a recent review for Video Night that maybe made me a little weepy. It’s a 4/5 star review, and it’s in no way one of those hyperbolic “oMg best book evar” kinds of reviews (although I’m cool with those and certainly enjoy receiving them, please go post any kind of review you want on amazon), but something about it struck me.

Here’s the review and here is the guy’s conclusion (his name’s Joshua P., he’s not someone I’m connected with on Facebook or twitter so I didn’t know if it would be cool to post his full name*):

“It would have been easy to just pile up the body-count and cast it with unlikable characters whose bellies we can’t wait to see burst by ungodly, spiny-backed monsters, but the author manages to believably render even minor characters with a warmth typically uncharacteristic of the genre. The movie references are also minimal and avoid the trap of becoming masturbatory and self-indulgent. VIDEO NIGHT may not be innovative, but its crafted with care and I look forward to reading more from this author.”

That’s an honest, fairly in-depth review from someone (I’m assuming) who found the book way after it was published. I mean, it’s not a blurb, no publisher would be cool with putting “not innovative” on the back cover. But in a lot of ways, if I weren’t biased, I think that paragraph would “sell” me on the book better than most blurbs.

Why did that review make me weepy? Well, a few reasons, I think. Video Night was not only my first full length novel published, it was the first long work I ever completed. Tribesmen was released first (in mid-2012), but it was written for John Skipp while VN was a final draft and sitting in Don D’Auria’s slush pile, waiting to be discovered.

I don’t know how it is for other writers, but for me that first book took a long ass time to gestate. Although I’d written a decent amount and had short stories published before starting my first novel, it was finishing Video Night, a book I had poured a lot of ideas and enthusiasm and youthful vigor into, that made me feel like a writer for the first time. That’s not to say that my work after has lacked enthusiasm, I think the majority of it is better in many ways, but I can honestly split my life into two halves: before and after Video Night. Everything I had stored up, from the movies and books I loved growing up to the movies and monsters I thought I was going to make before I caught the writing bug, it’s all in there. It was a weird exorcism of pent-up creativity, and I think that’s what makes it my “happiest” book.

There are those reasons and then there’s the clincher:

I don’t think about my backlist.

As someone who is trying to make an honest go of writing full-time, I’m only ever really concerned with three books. There’s the book I’m working on currently (this can, in fact, be multiple books, if I’m stupid and end up working on two projects at once), the book that was most recently released or is about to be released (for that one I’m doing social media hustling, trying to hunt down possible review outlets, doing guest posts and interviews), and the hypothetical book I could be writing (which has me sending out pitches and cold emails for freelance work, sending warm and re-heated replies to the editors kind enough to want to talk with me).

So, while Video Night was released a scant two years ago, I haven’t really thought about it with any depth or affection since I was promoting it in the beginning of 2013. It’s not that I don’t like it, I guess I love it, am so proud of it, but I do fall into the trap of often thinking of it as “less-than.” Why? Because those years since its release are two years that felt like five.

When I have a new release, I always default to that when I’m asked to recommend a starting point. That thinking’s two-pronged: my most recent work is frequently my favorite and I want to put my best foot forward for any prospective readers. And I also want sales momentum to continue, as my most recent work is usually the one doing best in sales (unless it’s Tribesmen, which is still doing consistent business even though it’s technically my oldest release, but most of the credit there goes to Matthew Revert’s beautiful new cover).

I’m not the greatest mathematician but by my calculation I’ve written nearly half a million (usable, publishable) words since I wrote the epilogue to my first novel. Spending that much time thinking about other work has a way of erasing the memory of the material that came before it.

To hear Joshua use the word “warmth” multiple times in his review triggered something in me, made me remember that “oh yeah, that was a pretty positive book, written with pretty positive, optimistic intentions.” And yes, I recognize the schmaltziness (an unpalatable amount for you, maybe, sorry) inherent in the author of a book that edges up against wallowing in nostalgia engaging in nostalgia for a book that’s only two years old, but whatever!

I struggled whether to put this up or not, it began as a throwaway Facebook post that grew too big. I see posts similar in tone pass through my newsfeed sometimes, and yeah they can feel self-congratulatory and possibly a bit foamy or even out of touch, but you know what? I’m proud of my work.

And not just the new stuff. It may have been a younger version of me writing VN, but I trust little me. If I thought it were inadequate I wouldn’t have sent it to a publisher (and if it wasn’t up to a certain level of quality that choice wouldn’t have been in my hands at all). It makes me so damn happy when people enjoy something I worked hard to make, when I see a post or get a private note from someone who liked what I did, wants to ask where they can get more, if there’s going to be a sequel (which is the most mindblowing, to me).

Does this post have a point or an arch? I don’t know, maybe. What do you say: when you’re checking out a writer for the first time do you go for their old titles or their new hotness? Or do you go with the critical consensus Or do you shop by subgenre and intuition? I guess I don’t know what I do, a bit of all the above.

Or maybe it would just be best to end with more warm and fuzzies, something to bring this full circle:

Yup. That’s my future backlist in this month’s Rue Morgue, a magazine I’m just young enough to have grown up reading and goddamn it now I’m getting mushy again…

*wrote this yesterday, woke up to find Joshua had followed me on twitter, so now we’re connected.

The LATE PHASES (2014) of the EXPONENTIALly Growing BABADOOK

Okay. This post is mainly going to be about Adrián García Bogliano’s Late Phases, but some housekeeping has to be done, so let’s get that out of the way first.

dook dook

Last week I had the opportunity to see Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook on the big screen. I love the ease of ordering movies VOD, but I wish there were more opportunities to see films like this outside of the festival circuit.

The thing about The Babadook is: everyone is right about The Babadook.

It’s really great. A metaphorical horror film that can be engaged at whatever level the audience wants, high or low, and still be both incredibly satisfying and entertaining.

Why am I not saying any more? Well, frankly, I feel like other people have said it first and said it better. It’s a movie that deserves the positive buzz and one I wish had a wide release.

Either rent The Babadook or track down a theater showing it. Seeing this film is basically your civic duty as a horror fan.

The second piece of business on the agenda is strictly self-promotional. I’ve been getting some good press for Exponential and it would be a shame not to link it all over.

First up, I did two interviews to promote the book. There was one with Bizarro’s favorite son, Gabino Iglesias, over at Bizarro Central. Gabino asked some pretty cutting questions. He came at me all Barbra Walters cagey and sinewy and tried to ask questions that would shake me to my core. I hung tough, though. He even bullied me into taking pictures with my shelves, so click over there if you want to see that.

And then there was a far more cordial discussion with Gef Fox where I ended up talking about bad writing advice when asked to give good writing advice.

The reviews for Exponential have started to trickle in as well.

Today there was a great one posted up at Ain’t It Cool News by Blu Gilliand, who used to cover my stuff over on FearNet (RIP). HorrorNewsNet’s Sean Leonard also got in on the action here. And Craig McNeely’s blog The Pulp Chronicler just finished up a month-long review retrospective of my stuff leading up to Exponential, which Craig calls “Cesare’s best book to date, hands down.”

I’ll take it.

Okay. Business done. Late Phases.

phases bannner

The difficult thing about writing up Late Phases* is: if you’re anything like me, all you will ever need is the elevator pitch.

“Late Phases is Rolling Thunder meets Blind Fury meets The Howling.”

I mean, do I even have to continue with this charade of a review? Can you honestly tell me that you didn’t just tab over to amazon, Vudu or itunes to give them your money?

There was a lot I didn’t know about Late Phases going in, but the opening credits got me way more excited than the good word of mouth.

First there was the reveal that Tom Noonan was in this movie. And who doesn’t love Noonan? And the next was that it was from director Adrián García Bogliano. I greatly enjoyed his last film, Here Comes the Devil, and I ended up liking this one even more.

Late Phases begins with our hero, Ambrose (Nick Damici), a recent widower, being moved into a retirement community (think less rest home, more gated housing development). You see, Ambrose is blind and he’s got a strained relationship with his son (and, of course, his son’s wife). But don’t feel too bad for the guy, he’s an army vet who served five years in Vietnam and, outside of the loss of eyesight and his going hearing: he’s kept in pretty great shape.

When Ambrose and his guide dog are attacked on their first night in their new home, finding and killing the creature that tried to kill him becomes Ambrose’s new raison d’être.

It’s worth mentioning that Damici looks and sounds so much like Charles Bronson that, once it becomes clear that his character will be soon doling out justice, his appearance (that mustache!) can be categorized as deliberate homage.

It’s not really a spoiler to let you know that the creature Ambrose has a Death Wish for is a werewolf. Bogliano doesn’t play that piece of information like a reveal, and he lets us see a good bit of the creature during the first attack, mere minutes into the movie.

What is played as a mystery is the identity of the beast. Which is not to say that Late Phases is a tightly plotted who-done-it. No, there is no werewolf break in this film, but the final reveal will satisfy viewers well enough. It’s what happens after that reveal, the third act, where most of the gory fun is anyway.

Unlike Here Comes the Devil, Late Phases takes a much more earnest effort at trying to color inside the lines of its chosen sub-genres (the werewolf film and man on a mission flick, natch). Unlike Here Comes the Devil, Late Phases is no kitchen sink horror movie.

Late Phases feels comfortable in its own (hirsute) skin. There is restraint, character work and patience on display and even when the plot presses up against abject silliness (which it admittedly does quite a few times, especially in the second half), Bogliano and his actors seem to know that they’re reaching and keep a steady hand on the throttle.

The final monster showdown is satisfying, not only in its blocking and cinematic execution, but because we know the stakes. We know that even though Ambrose is a badass, he’s also completely blind.

To add to the film’s attraction there’s also a really great werewolf transformation scene, presented through clever editing and practical effects rather than an abundance of CGI.

Less impressive are the werewolves themselves. The bipedal creatures have a cool animatronic face (ala American Werewolf in London), pointy The Howling-esque ears, but may look a little too man-in-suit (only Cursed is called to mind, unfortunately) for some.

I kinda dig the effect of the not-wonderful werewolves, though.

The look of the creatures let us know that: yes, Late Phases may be a far above average written, acted, and shot monster movie, but it also isn’t some simpering post-modern revisionist monster movie that’s afraid to go the full monty when it comes to its werewolves.

No, Late Phases goes very far out of its way to deliver the goods. So far that the greatest iron lung gag since The Big Lebowski and Larry Fessenden selling headstones become just icing on the cake.

*I can’t tell if amazon is right or not, but they list the film’s full title as Late Phases: Night of the Lone Wolf.  I absolutely refuse to refer to the film by that name. Late Phases, full stop, is such a great title. Adding the “Night of the Lone Wolf” subtitle is a crime.

Giving it Her All: STARRY EYES (2014)

I’ve only skimmed the reviews for Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch’s Starry Eyes. I will read them, I always like hearing what other people think of films I find interesting, but I wanted to get some impressions down first.

Without having read any proper write-ups, it was still difficult to avoid two things about Starry Eyes before setting aside the hour and a half needed to VOD it: A) there was positive buzz coming off the film and B) the word “throwback” was getting tossed around.

Let’s handle those things in the order they were received.

Good buzz is good buzz. Positive word of mouth is encouraging. It means that I’ll want to prioritize sitting down with a movie, but having the black t-shirt crowd* on board with a movie doesn’t always translate to said movie being any good.

And a “throwback”? In the day of digitally-lensed films slapping on artificial cigarette burns and intentionally camping up the dialogue to disguise their real, unintentional shortcomings, the term “throwback” has become a red flag.

For Starry Eyes, though, the label isn’t solely warranted by the use of a copyright slug on the title card and a punchy synthesizer score (Jonathan Snipes), but the fact that the film feels classical in both its construction and execution. Starry Eyes is a “throwback” in the right sense, to a time when genre films weren’t pandering lobs meant to appeal to either the broadest possible teeny bopper audiences or the most niche of gorehounds and nobody in between.

Starry Eyes could be accurately described as Rosemary’s Baby meets A Star is Born. It concerns Sarah, a young actress in Hollywood struggling to land a role, any role, who is ultimately offered the lead in a horror film from a prestigious, but ailing, production company. What she has to do to seal the deal? Well, that’s where the horror comes in.

There’s metacommentary in the film, but the whole thing is played far less winky and self-aware than that synopsis makes it sound. The successful tone has to do with how believable Sarah’s world of dead end jobs, obnoxious parties, and panic attack-inducing auditions is presented in the first half. Take away the supernatural element and you’d be left with a fairly scathing, if authentic, portrait of modern Hollywood.

There’s so much refreshing about Starry Eyes, but nothing about it is better than its central performance. Alexandra Essoe elevates what, in an alternate reality, could have been a neat little indie movie of ideas hamstrung by its reliance on its star, into an actor’s showcase. Much like the central conceit of her character, Essoe is special, a cut above. She brings a vulnerability to the role that makes it very easy to sympathize with her character’s choices. Even from the first sequence–a party scene in which we learn that Sarah has missed out on a part in a commercial to her roommate’s friend (the distinction between her real friends and her “Hollywood” friends becoming important later on)–we buy that Sarah is a person who has been dealing with the stressors of trying to make it long before the opening credits.

The rest of the cast, which includes Fabianne Therese (the aforementioned roommate’s friend, playing an unlikable character in the best possible way), Noah Segan (of Looper and Dead Girl fame) and Pat Healy (whose inclusion in each year’s crop of standout genre films is starting to feel obligatory), performs admirably. But this is Essoe’s show.

The metaphor at the center of Starry Eyes works because it isn’t that much of a metaphor. Hollywood frequently destroys its bright young things, even the ones who “make it.” The film plays this idea broadly, but broad doesn’t always mean over-obvious or preachy. There is enough subtext (cultural, social, sexual, you name it) left unexpurgated to mull over as the credits roll, especially the events of the film’s final fifteen minutes.

I’m betting that many will label Starry Eyes a “slow burn” but at an economical 98 minutes, many of those minutes filled with thrills and dread, I’d say that’s a bit of a misnomer. Still, looking at the ending, I can understand why some will jump to call the film a Ti West-esque slow burn.

I so badly want to talk about specifics but I also don’t want to spoil anything. I will say that things escalate quickly in the third act, almost too quickly, making you think we’ve dropped a reel or have sat on the remote and switched to a different film (something inspired by the Mansons, maybe?). But the final two sequences–the resolution and the kicker–have a kind of restorative power and place the film’s unexpected bursts of action and brutality into a very earned context.

So, yes, it’s a throwback and there’s clearly some other filmic DNA kicking around in there (satanic panic chillers, body horror, and even some folk horror, regular readers know how that stuff revs my engines) but there’s also an undeniably modern quality to Starry Eyes. In a genre that’s obsessive about looking back to the “glory” days, the Hollywood presented and commented on in the film is today’s.

Possibly the best accolade to bestow on Starry Eyes, a film whose virtues are many (a great central performance, smart script, nice cinematography, a winning score), is that it is a real film. It not only tells a compelling story but carries with it a handful of compelling questions, all of which are worth asking and most are satisfactorily explored.

Highly recommended.

*This is a term I’m borrowing/paraphrasing from Jeremy Robert Johnson, I think.

Okay. Review is done. In other news, the paperback edition of my third novel, Exponential, is now shipping through amazon, Barnes & Noble, direct from Samhain Publishing, and wherever else. The ebook drops Tuesday (tomorrow).

Do with this information what you will.

Zero Lives Remaining: Limited Edition up for Pre-Order

Okay. I’m busy today so have to keep this short and sweet. And what better way to do that than with bullet points?

  • Firstly, you should watch this video:

Awesome, right? It was directed by Mike Lombardo and his fine Reel Splatter folks. Mike’s done a lot of great shorts (I highly recommend you check out The Stall) and when Shock Totem reached out for him to help out with this project, I was allowed to head out to Lancaster, PA to watch part of the shoot. I could not be more grateful for the crew’s hard work. Not only did they shoot this commercial, but they took some high quality photos depicting other scenes from the book, those extras will be included in the Limited Edition.

ZLR clawgame

Haunted Video Arcade? Then it’s a given that someone’s going in that claw machine, right? Dismembered actress/PA Kaleigh B. is pictured.

Second, you should know that there will be both paperback and ebook editions of Zero Lives Remaining. Those will be available in December, I think. This is not a full novel, but a novella.

The “early adopters” who pick up the limited edition not only get the hardcover, the sick VHS case, the gorgeous interior illustrations by Nick Gucker, and the photos, but also a bonus short story. The story is one of the best I’ve ever written, it’s called “So Bad” and it’ll be new to you if you haven’t read the (soon to be sold out) issue of Splatterpunk where it originally appeared.

So, yes, $45 dollars is a lot of cash to spend on a short book (it’s about the size of Tribesmen or The First One You Expect, if you’ve read those) but you will get some awesome bonus goodies and there will be a more affordable version later. I say this all upfront so nobody feels like they’re being ripped off. I know some of you may be new to the idea of signed limited editions, since I’ve never had one of my books appear in this “boutique” format.

Thirdly and finally, you should head over to Shock Totem to reserve your copy. I was a bit late getting this post up, so a bunch of these have already been spoken for. These will sell out, so if you want one: jump on it.

I love this book, and I think you’re going to like it too.

Also, looks like those bullet points were kinda ill-fated, eh? Oh well. Brevity is the soul of wit…

A few KNICK-knacks and some rambling

jackpot cover

I was on a bit of a roll there, blogging-wise, wasn’t I? I was posting once a week, like clockwork, and I almost made it an entire month. But I got busy, the idea well ran dry, and I put my efforts into other work.

But I’m writing again for two reasons: the first is that I’ve got new links to share, self-aggrandizing stuff for you to read, etc.

The second is because I’d like to take a moment to rave a bit about Cinemax and Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick. That will be a worthwhile little write-up, I think, but I’m going to lay the self-promotion on you first. That way you don’t have to worry about getting near the end of the substantive thoughts only to be blindsided by crass commercialism.

No further ado, look upon my links and despair:

  • Starting things off, appropriately since yesterday was #throwbackthursday (not really because of that, actually) the wonderful ladies at The Horror Honeys were kind enough to post a review of my first novel, Video Night. Even though it’s been a couple of years since its release, I’m still overjoyed to hear of folks digging it. So HUGE thanks to Jocelyn.
  • If you missed out on ordering the handsome limited edition of Jackpot, no worries because the book’s now available in ebook and paperback. For those of you who haven’t heard about the novella: it’s Shane McKenzie, Kristopher Rufty, David Bernstein and I answering what would happen if a serial killer won the lottery. It’s sick and twisted and funny and gory to the point of absurdity. I think you’ll like it, provided you have the stomach for it.
  • In other Jackpot news there are already some great reviews popping up here and here. So big thanks to Neko Lilly and the others. Remember that when you fairly review a book on Amazon, Goodreads or anywhere else prospective buyers can see it, you’re doing a valuable “Consumer Reports” service and gaining the admiration of the author in the process. In this case, this book has four authors so that’s 4x the usual amount of admiration.
  • While we’re on the topic of reviews, I don’t think I’ve ever been written up in a newspaper before. What a relief that it’s both a positive mention and nowhere near the obituaries.
  • Lastly, it’s a small thing, but I’ve updated the links on the side bar. All the book covers and t-shirt designs are all properly sized and more accurately linked and labeled now. Please click on all of them and shop until you drop, baby.

Okay. That’s done. On with the good stuff:

the knick banner

I haven’t read any critical reactions to The Knick and don’t have any friends that watch, but I did a cursory Googling before sitting down to write this, just to get a feel for the room, as it were. The first headline to catch my eye was Emily Nussbaum’s piece in The New Yorker entitled “Surgical Strikeout: Steven Soderbergh’s disappointing The Knick” and it ended up being the only review I read.

Although my thoughts on the show are positive, I have to point out that Nussbaum not only makes some salient criticisms (which I’ll get to in a minute) but that I’m writing after having seen six of the first season’s ten episodes, and I’m guessing that her review material was limited to the first few episodes, since she was writing in early August.

The “we’re in the golden age of serialized television!” proclamations are getting old at this point. Yes, it’s true: television is a better, freer medium than it ever has been. More interesting, and more specific than the ‘golden age’ observation: I’m loving how longform television drama is becoming a director/writer’s medium.

Writer’s rooms still produce great material and the strength of the group-think ideas that come out of such rooms has long been a virtue exclusive to television, but it’s interesting to note that some of the best shows in recent years have been bucking that trend in favor of a slimmer team of creators.

The first season of True Detective had one director and one writer. Every episode of the so-much-more-wonderful-than-it-has-any-right-to-be monster mash Penny Dreadful was penned by John Logan. And now Steven Soderbergh has directed (and shot under a pseudonym, if the internet is to be believed) every episode of The Knick, while writing duo Jack Ameil and Micheal Berger share credit on all but one episode. No longer is the “showrunner” the undisputed paterfamilious of serialized drama, and I think that’s some of the most convincing evidence that TV is becoming the new cinema.

While I somewhat agree with Nussbam that The Knick is a much more conventional historical drama than something like Mad Men, there’s something compelling about the shows engagement with television tropes.

As the first season has moved forward, what began as a kind of R-rated E.R.-in-a bowler hat has stretched the notion of the ensemble closer to the anthology format. Instead of strictly adhering to the A-plot/B-plot structure so popular in hospital procedurals, characters in The Knick come in and out of each other’s circle of influence rather freely, giving the show a diffuse, relaxed feeling.

The show’s advertising has been Clive Owen-heavy, but this is not a show about Owen’s John Thackery, but instead a show focusing on The Knickerbocker hospital itself, and Soderbergh divides his time accordingly. Instead of the stark upstairs/downstairs delineation drawn in Downton Abbey, The Knick casts a much wider net, focusing on surgeons, the nurses, the hospital’s wealthy benefactors, the nuns in the nursery, the ambulance men, and the administration. Some of those strands in The Knick’s web intersect, some of them don’t.

(A note for all my horror peeps: as quaint and stuffy as that description may sound, “hospital drama set in New York in 1900”, most of the show’s plots seem to involve a kind of graphic, grimy body horror at one point or another, so this one’s for you.)

Paired with Cliff Martinez’s (Only God Forgives) hypnotic electronic score, Soderbergh’s wandering-but-still-controlled handheld camera becomes a character itself. We hold on supporting characters longer than we would in most shows (or at least how we’ve been trained to feel out the beats in network television, where this form of high concept soap is usually king), letting characters whose first introductions may have set off narrative red-flags, seemed cliché, mature and subvert our expectations, if only slightly.

The Knick is the perfect pairing of old and new. It’s got compelling characters (of both the likable and likably loathsome–Andre Holland’s badass Dr. Edwards sure to be a fan favorite) doing and saying awesome things (some of the dialogue coming right to the precipice of overwritten, then looking over and spitting off the side), and it looks great doing it. It’s a Bizarro World lens thrown over the boilerplate medical drama: the comfort and familiarity draws viewers in, then the emotional and physical brutality pulls the trap shut behind them.

I was always more of an admirer of Soderbergh’s–someone who enjoyed and respected how prolific and varied the director’s style could be–than an actual diehard fan. The Knick changes that. Its extended format gives me something more of the deliberately slippery Soderbergh to hold on to, to think about from week to week, and I look forward to each episode the same way I might attend a anticipated film each weekend. Isn’t that the highest compliment?

It’s well worth checking out and I can’t wait to see where this season (and the next) goes. Whether checking it out means waiting for the Blu-rays or signing up for Cinemax, I’ll let you decide how desperately you want to hear Clive Owen threaten to sew someone’s nose and mouth shut and watch them asphyxiate.

A Reason to Believe in WILLOW CREEK

The theatrical poster is great...

The theatrical poster is great…

I try to go into movies knowing as little as I can about them.

When I’m making a recommendation or looking to go to the theater with people, it’s strange how much the question “What’s that one about?” sets me on edge, irks me.

It probably shouldn’t, it’s a reasonable question, but most times I don’t know and don’t care what a film is about. Either I heard the movie was good, or I like the director’s previous work, or I glanced at the Metacritic score: there could be any number of reasons, but whatever, I just want to see it, man.

Even without watching a single trailer or reading a single review, the minimal amount I knew about Willow Creek upfront was almost too much.

All I knew was that this was writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait’s found footage movie. And that the tone was played straight. And that it was about Bigfoot.

This info was not only enough to make me want to see the film, but enough to make me feel kind of crazy while watching it.

See, I’m both a Goldthwait fan (especially World’s Greatest Dad, a serious contender for best comedy of the last decade) and (clearly) a horror fan. But the melding of the two, I have to admit, made me a little leery.

For the first few minutes of the film, I couldn’t stop thinking, couldn’t stop the deluge of questions: why make this movie? Where is this headed, tonally? Is this some kind of fakeout? It’s SO different than his other movies, is this something Goldthwait did for a paycheck?

Yes, all that thinking was keeping me from focusing on the film itself, but once I got into it? The answer to all these questions? The film’s greatest trick?

Well, it’s that Willow Creek is no joke, no cash-in. It’s not only a “for real” FUBU (even without listening to the commentary where Goldthwait admits to as much, it’s plain to see in the film he’s a student/fan of the genre) horror flick, it’s one of the best found footage films ever. Period.

As a birthday gift for her boyfriend, Jim (Bryce Johnson), Kelly (Alexis Gilmore) agrees to accompany him to Northern California where the duo will film a documentary retracing the steps of Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, who shot the famous 1967 footage of Sasquatch. It’s clear from the first scene that, even though Kelly and Jim are fond of each other, there are still stressors on their relationship (issues with their careers, locations, and their ideology when it comes to Bigfoot). The two leads are so strong (asked to improvise large portions of the film, it turns out, as there was only a 25 page outline of a script) that even if there was never any Bigfoot action, Willow Creek would still be an accurate portrayal of the little pains everyone goes through in a relationship.

The couple spends the first half of the movie interviewing experts, traveling, and exploring the cottage industry that the Patterson-Gimlin footage has inspired. This kind of film is never everyone’s cup of tea, so if you’re someone that bemoans found footage as a genre, Willow Creek is not going to do anything to cure you of that. But jeez does it work for me. I consider myself pretty jaded when it comes to scares and I thought the ending was straight-up terrifying.

...but this alternate one by Alex Pardee is superior.

…but this alternate one by Alex Pardee is superior.

As harrowing as the final 20 minutes is, Willow Creek is probably Goldthwait’s gentlest film.

It lacks the comic nihilism/misanthropy that started in Shakes the Clown, was perfected in World’s Greatest Dad, and (in my opinion) turned God Bless America into an overlong, one-note, kind of deal. For many other directors, a voyage into the darkest genre would be an opportunity to cut loose, but for Goldthwait (again collaborating with stars Gilmore and Johnson) this is a chance for the plot to carry the bulk of the darkness, allowing for more relatable, likeable characters. Although Willow Creek was first conceived as a mockumentary comedy (Goldthwait himself an enthusiast into Sasquatch lore), that tone was jettisoned early and even the oddest of the film’s supporting characters is treated with a tenderness and understanding that few other films would afford them. In its way, Willow Creek is quite sweet.

Part of what’s so awesome about Willow Creek is that it functions similar to the way the Patterson-Gimlin footage itself works on viewers. It’s a layered mystery and once you view it you end up, like Jim, needing to know more. Not only are there narrative threads left hanging, stuff to pick at and think over, but the film’s use of non-actors and real Northern California “Bigfoot industry” locations makes you puzzle over how much of the film is real and how much is scripted.

I picked up the Blu-ray at HorrorHound Indy, and I’m unsure how the movie will play with audiences stumbling onto it on Netflix streaming, unable to get that immediate context. Unlike a magic trick where the illusion is ruined by learning how it was achieved, Willow Creek is a film that all but demands you check out the supplemental features to peek behind the curtain.

The director clearly has a strong grip on the horror genre, but, as he notes on the commentary, Goldthwait is not a found footage fan. While he does praise The Blair Witch Project (as he should, Willow Creek sticks pretty close to BWP’s successful structure), he points out that many of its progeny are lazily put together, ending up far too processed and edited to be viewed as convincing found footage “documents” by their audiences. To combat this, Goldthwait claims that the first cut of Willow Creek included only 67 edits, and although that number is much higher in the finished film, that level of restraint (and his insistence on ending most sequences on a “in-narrative” cut) is a good indicator that the man knows what he’s doing.

The director semi-seriously jokes that this would be the kind of movie best made “If I were in my early 20s” (I’m paraphrasing) but I don’t think that’s true at all. Even with the improvisational feel, Willow Creek is a polished production, one whose themes of belief vs. skepticism and nuanced view of relationships couldn’t have come from a first time director.

So I had my doubts, but Goldthwait made me a believer. I hope this won’t be his only foray into horror.

Postscript update: while looking for an amazon link to throw on this review (it’s $13 bucks on blu right now, which is a bargain), I peeked at some of the customer reviews it has on there and *woof!* To say I strongly disagree with most of these people would be an understatement.