The TRIBESMEN post: To thine own self-promotion be true

Hello dearest Reader,

You may not know this, but not only do I write (intermittently) about obscure films and books, I also write fiction.

In the past I’ve posted links to various magazines my work has appeared in, but this time things are slightly different. This time I’ve got a whole book all to myself and it’s being released as part of John Skipp’s new Ravenous Shadows imprint.

Tribesmen is a 30,000 word novella (meaning it will take roughly the same amount of time as a feature film) and it’s available right now for your amazon Kindle (or the Kindle iphone/android/PC app, if you’re not into the whole e-reader scene).

Here’s the official synopsis:

In the early 80’s – at the height of the ultra-violent “Italian cannibal” grindhouse film craze – a small international cast and crew descend on an isolated Caribbean island, hoping to crassly exploit the native talent.

But the angry, undead spirits of the island have a different, more original script in mind. And as horror after staggering horror unfolds, the camera keeps rolling. To the blood-spattered end…

If you read this blog regularly, it’s up your alley. But don’t take my word for it. Check out the incredible authors who were generous enough to blurb me:

“The best new writer I’ve read in years. Wonderfully lean prose and edge-of-your-seat thrills. Drop everything else and start reading Tribesmen.”

Nate Kenyon, author of Sparrow Rock and Starcraft Ghost: Spectres

Tribesmen is a gory and clever homage to those Italian cannibal flicks that we all love so dearly, but without the real-life animal cruelty! Highly recommended.”

Jeff Strand, author of Pressure and Wolf Hunt.

“Sometimes everything goes wrong, in the best possible way. Think Snuff and Cannibal Holocaust meeting at a midnight movie. And then give one of them a camera, the other a knife.”

Stephen Graham Jones, author of It Came from Del Rio, Demon Theory and The Ones That Got Away

There you go, that’s my pitch. If you’re curious but not sold, you can send a free sample to your Kindle (the first 1 and 1/2 chapters, I believe).

Check it out here and if you do pick it up, please consider writing a quick review.

Thanks for your time,


Update: if you are a nook user, the ebook is now also available at Barnes and Noble.

NOT a ghost story, ghosts don’t know they’re dead: Haunt by Laura Lee Bahr

Laura Lee Bahr’s debut novel Haunt is the literary equivalent to a Rubik’s Cube. Maybe that analogy won’t hold up for everyone, but it certainly does for me because there’s no way in hell I’ll ever be able to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

I don’t mean to imply that the plot is based on an indecipherable puzzle (although there is a strong mystery thread that weaves through the pagecount). What I mean is that even when Haunt is at its most frustrating: it’s always fun.

What on the outset looks to be a multi-perspective story about the intersecting lives of three different characters turns into an ever-shifting (and ever-collapsing) meditation on storytelling, relationships, metaphysics and, ultimately, life itself.

The plot (as far as it is summarizable) concerns Richard, a broski from Middle America who’s recently moved to LA, Sarah, the spirit who haunts his apartment and Simon, the magnetically dashing journalist who’s somehow tied up in Sarah’s death (or is he?). If that sounds vague and confusing…it is. This is a difficult book to summarize not only because I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but because Bahr herself is constantly messing with the chronology, reliability and even the planes of reality within her novel.

In the introduction, editor John Skipp reveals that the book was originally intended to utilize a “Choose your own adventure” structure. I’m glad that the gimmick was jettisoned, because what Haunt is now is a multi-tiered adventure where you have no choice, even when one is being offered to you. It’s a puzzle where some of the pieces are missing and where some were never meant to fit together in the first place. The result is invigorating.

Bahr’s book is colorful, beguiling and intelligent without ever feeling snooty or overindulgent. It’s a book that straddles a number of lines effortlessly: it strikes just the right balance between highbrow and lowbrow; it never lets its perplexing nature overshadow the reader’s sense of forward momentum or atmosphere. As far as it dives into the surreal, Bahr’s prose always feels grounded, the way I feel art like this needs to be for maximum enjoyment (think David Lynch or earlier Darren Aronofsky).

Highly recommended for the adventurous readers among you (and I’d like to think that’s all of you, so don’t disappoint me).

Catching up with Andrew: Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary)

I’ve been a fan of Jeff Strand’s work for a few years now, but I’ve never picked up his earlier work (hop in the ole time machine and read about my first exposure to Strand right here. Why was I underlining titles back then? Was it my 5th grade book report?). More specifically I’ve never read his Andrew Mayhem series of horror/comedy/thrillers. Last month saw the re-release of the first three Mayhem books in spiffy* new digital editions (that are intended to prepare readers for the forth), so I decided to give the first title a whirl.

I really had no idea what to expect with Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary). I’m not much a fan of ongoing series, so would it feel too TV-ish to me? Would Strand’s prose be as funny and dry as his later work? How would I be able to fear for a character’s safety when I know they’ll be around for at least three more books?

The answer: those were all stupid questions and I should stop being a doubting Thomas.

Graverobbers is a ghoulish rocket that runs on the propulsive combination of its ludicrous plot and the likeably doofy voice of its narrator. Andrew’s first adventure is as enjoyable as he is inept.

The book is labeled as an “Andrew Mayhem Thriller” but I think “Mystery” would give perspective readers a better idea what to expect. Andrew may be a schmuck, but he’s still a detective in the tradition of Sherlock, Marlowe, Spade and Lew Archer. The clue elements may not be as integral to the overall success of the book as its humor and gore are, but there’s a mystery going on here nonetheless.

If we need further evidence to prove that Strand’s playing around with the genre of Chandler and Hammett, there’s also that great hardboiled cliché of the protagonist getting knocked around. Andrew is pummeled, shot and stabbed for our amusement, so even if he can’t detect, he’s got that in common with his forebearers.

Even if when all this violence that is perpetrated on poor Andrew, we don’t feel that the stakes are quite high enough, Strand ratchets up the tension by throwing some innocents into the fold. Where the aforementioned detectives are all aloof lone-wolves, Andrew’s got a family to protect and we can’t help but fear for them.

Graverobbers Wanted
is three bucks, you should check it out.
If the sign of a good series can be measured in the amount of time it takes a reader to purchase the next book, then let it be known that I finished the transaction for Single White Psychopath Seeks Same a minute after reaching “The End.” If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.

*With striking covers by Strand’s wife, author Lynne Hansen.

In Every Dream Home a Heartache: Dream Home (2010)

I’ve always been interested in the way different governments codify and deal with “extreme” media. Like most horror fans this means that I have a fascination with (and healthy fear of) censorship. Although many enjoy griping about America’s film certification board, the MPAA, it’s important to remember that it is an independent, not governmental body. In many countries this is not the case, and though there are many problems with the MPAA, it does not have the power to ban a film outright.

This stuff is not ancient history (the Thatcher-era “Video Recordings Act” was during the late 80s, and even this year the UK banned Human Centipede II claiming no amount of cuts would get the film certified) nor is it restricted to the Brits (see Australia’s recent crack down on violent video games) but I would argue that no area of the world has a more interesting ratings system in place than Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s certification system (established in the late 1980s, before which there were no ratings but harsh restrictions on what could appear onscreen) is a series of categories capped off with the highly permissive Category III rating (Cat III). Cat III films require the viewer to be over 18, and although pornography is not permitted in HK (on the black market, such content is referred to as “Cat IV”) Cat III films are allowed to have a level of sex and violence (and often times a combination of the two) that would make any other ratings board balk.

Unlike the MPAA’s restrictive (and seldom used) NC-17, many films are produced specifically to carry the label of Cat III. Although many varieties of films find themselves carrying the label, within the HK horror genre, the certification led to the formation of a loose subgenre of cheaply produced HK splatter films. Films like Ebola Syndrome, Dr. Lamb and Daughter of Darkness consistently smash the boundaries of good taste, but have probably never been anyone’s idea of cerebral, highbrow international cinema. Ho-Cheung Pang’s Dream Home (2010) is not one of those films. It may be a Cat III horror film, it may contain stomach churning scenes of violence and brutality, but where the goal of the films mentioned above is taboo-breaking, Dream Home has satiric, intelligent and artistic aspirations…

But if that’s not your thing it also has a woman being suffocated using a vacuum cleaner, a plastic bag and a zip-tie. Yikes.

In fact, the violence in Dream Home is so extreme that cuts had to be made in Hong Kong just so it could be a Cat III film. If this doesn’t pique your interest, then you’ve probably haven’t seen some of these movies. I have no facts to back this up, but I have a feeling that the reason the HK ratings board was so hard on Dream Home was how GOOD the film looks.

This is one of the slickest horror movies you’ve ever seen, and the gorgeous photography only serves to enhance the unsettlingly well-executed gore effects. Speaking of gore, the FX are mostly practical with slight digital embellishments. Dream Home could be used as a good counteragument to those diehards who naysay digital gore. As with any tool, it just has to be used correctly.

The plot is simple: Cheng (the quite fetching Josie Ho) is a middle class gal with aspirations of being an upper-middle class gal. She’s going to get there by securing the apartment of her dreams (hence the title), but given HK’s economy and impenetrable housing market that’s easier said than done. In many ways this is the world’s first “real estate horror” movie, and to make it a lot less boring than it sounds the narrative is fractured. We jump back and forth in Cheng’s life, from her childhood to the point where she decides to take up arms (a box cutter, some zip-ties and her grandfather’s toolbelt) against the tenants of a luxury high-rise. This temporal hopscotch ensures that a splatter set-piece is delivered about once every ten minutes, keeping our attention.

I love the ideas that fuel the film, I love parts of the film, but I do not love Dream Home.

Like the best genre works, Dream Home is a movie that engages the world around it. It is a movie that not only offers entertainment (of a pitch-dark variety) but also societal commentary. Although it is steeped in localisms, you don’t have to know a bunch about the history of Hong Kong to enjoy it (in fact, there is a brief text primer on the Chinese “handover” and Hong Kong’s political and economic situation at the beginning of the film). If anything, it helps looking at the movie with American eyes: these desires and economic woes are universal.

Dream Home is a difficult movie to discuss, because I think I enjoy it a whole lot more in theory than I do in execution. It’s got problems. And chief among them is pacing. The movie starts with its best sequences, by the middle the audience can predict the ending (down to the final shot), and in the end the crescendo it tries to build to is the only action sequence that rings hollow.

So do I recommend you seek it out? Yes. With enough blood spillage to appeal to gorehounds and enough thought behind it that it will appeal to pseudo-academics like myself, the film is worth it although I doubt it will 100% satisfy either camp.

Dream House is on Netflix Instant in HD (which is probably as good/slightly better than the DVD if you have a fast enough connection). If you’re a Netflix ex-pat, there’s always Amazon.

It was released uncut stateside by IFC, so kudos to them (they also gave a release to the excellent Pontypool. It seems that as they decline as a network, they’re growing as a distribution channel). I don’t speak Cantonese, but I do have to say that the subtitles seem a little hinky. Then again, maybe that’s how the dialog sounds in it’s original language. Sadly there seems to be no blu-ray in any country, that’s a shame because the film is very nice looking.

How are they going to stay in this house for more than a season? American Horror Story and the “New TV”

If you haven’t noticed that television has changed over the last 6 or 7 years, then you probably don’t own a television. Thanks to HBO (The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire), hour long dramas are no longer restricted to crime-of-the-week police procedurals and night-time soaps. And, more recently, thanks to shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica, they’re no longer limited to pay-cable either. With nuanced character work, complex narrative arcs that can take tens of hours to mature and evolve, and budgets to rival the best Hollywood can muster, in many ways this “New TV” is a genre all its own.

This year I haven’t seen every pilot, but most of the new shows I’ve sampled have been quite dismal. Many were even “didn’t make it through half an episode”-level dismal. Serial television is both a commitment and a gamble, not just for networks but for viewers. Not only is it incredibly difficult to line up all the variables and produce something worthwhile, but who wants to invest seven hours in something that may not even make it to a season finale? Or three hours, if you were one of the handful of people tuning in to NBC’s The Playboy Club?

So what does this idea of the “New TV” have to do with FX’s American Horror Story? Judging from the pilot, I’m not sure.

What I am sure of is that I really enjoyed the pilot. This doesn’t tell us a whole lot about whether the show will evolve into one of the shining examples like I listed above, or devolve into the same-y crap that clogs our airwaves. Not too harp on the “what ifs” too much, but it must be said that I feel showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have a history with such de-evolution. The first seasons of their pre-Horror Story shows (the ultradark, sexed-up soap Nip/Tuck and the still-running Glee) offered great promise upfront but ultimately delved into self-parody and banality in their later years.

But let’s look at the positives, shall we? We’ve been given one hour, and it’s a damn fine hour. American Horror Story’s first episode is an unholy patchwork of so many influences and references that a viewer has to ask themselves: at what number of influences does homage stop being a retread and enter back into the realm of wholly original? If there is such a point, I think Horror Story surpasses it.

I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to Dark Shadows, which is valid, but there are also shades of Twin Peaks, Lar’s Von Trier’s The Kingdom, The Addams Family, Matheson’s Hell House. Most of all it reminds me of the 90s short-lived, but fondly-remembered (at least by me) series American Gothic.

These are all good influences, but Horror Story is also blessed (cursed?) with the one of the genre’s more recent, less-than-admirable trends: MTV-ization. By this I mean the frenetic, often distracting and nonsensical way that most ADD-addled material seems to be presented to young audiences these days. In the pilot, there’s not 30 seconds that go by without a jump cut, a trippy in-camera zoom, a subliminal flash of “disturbing” (and often arbitrary) imagery. Luckily, the rest of what’s on display is so pleasing that these stylistic annoyances are forgivable, and in some cases even enjoyable.

Ryan Murphy may not be a calm, metered director, but damn if he can’t write some of the best pulp dialogue. The script is chock full of snappy retorts, deliciously petty quips and crescendos with one knockdown Dynasty-level screaming match. The dialogue would be nothing if you didn’t have the right actors doling it out, and this is another area where Horror Story excels.

Led by the beautiful and talented Connie Britton (the slighted, tragic matriarch), the cast is a nice assemblage of talented familiar faces and some wonderful character actors. This variety of semi-self-aware high-pulp needs to be played serious, loud and seriously loud, and nobody in the cast seems to understand this better than co-stars Jessica Lange (an aging, bigoted southern Belle) and Dylan McDermmot (who is still probably flossing bits of the scenery out from between his teeth).

“But what about the horror? Will genre fans be happy?” You ask. “They should be,” I would answer. Beginning with a grisly pre-credits sequence that involves not only a creepy old house, an ominous little girl and pickled fetuses, but also glimpses of some kind of ghost/monster, the show continues to ladle on the shocks evenly over its runtime. Shocks that include—but are not limited to—a creepy gimp suit, a poltergeist pulled directly from Poltergeist, and a crispy Amityville-esque murderer. I think you’ll find something you’ll like.

Only time will tell if American Horror Story can stay the course, sustain its quality and become one of the few successful serial genre shows, but I, for one, am rooting for it. Check it out if you haven’t done so already.

The Value of Shock

Disclaimer: Yeah, there are like fifteen hundred other reviews of this book bouncing around the internet. I know. But I went to a store and bought this last week, so you’re gonna have to indulge me while I put down some thoughts.

There are very few nonfiction books written about horror films that aren’t either: a) breezy, fan-written overviews of the genre, which are generally full of hyperbole and geek-bias or b) so overly academic that they preclude enjoyment. In Shock Value, Jason Zinoman solves this problem by approaching his chosen material as both an intelligent fan (the guy wrote for the New York Times and Vanity Fair) and by focusing the majority of his attention on the interesting—and often untold—human stories behind the production of these films.

Zinoman’s area of interest is the dawn of “New Horror” in the 1970s. As you probably know, there’s not a whole lot left to say about Halloween, The Exorcist, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or Rosemary’s Baby. These films have been poked and prodded, reconstructed and deconstructed under every possible critical and academic lens. Wisely, Zinoman chooses to take a closer look at the creators of these films over in-depth analysis of the films themselves. He examines both the cultural climate of the time in which these men were working and their relationships to each other (relationships which range from playful thematic discourse to professional symbiosis to downright adversarial). Through extensive and candid interviews with filmmakers like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and a host of their collaborators Zinoman creates intriguing miniature portraits of the men themselves, but also to tell the larger story of the movement they forged. These are men we don’t hear from a lot (promo material for DVDs barely counts, and that’s not the kind of engagement they give Zinoman). Many of their stories are quite fascinating and will often offer deeper insights into their work.

Worthy of special mention is the large swath of time Zinoman takes discussing the life and work of the late Dan O’Bannon. It’s great that this lesser-respected, semi-kooky, but very important figure in genre cinema gets to tell his side of the story one last time in the pages of Shock Value. For me, this alone was worth the price of the book.

How much enjoyment you yourself will derive from Shock Value, probably depends on your level of open-mindedness and readiness to interact with a text that you may not agree with at all times. The hardest of the hardcore horror fans will probably find much of the ground covered to be familiar, and even if they don’t they will possibly take offense to Zinoman’s frank appraisal of horror post-the advent of New Horror. The author approaches the men he’s studying in a very smart way, and is very quick to point out how well-read his subjects were as young men. By the time he reaches his conclusion he makes two fairly controversial assertions. First he points out the unfortunate trend that many of these filmmakers were never able to top their early (and in most cases, first) works. This is unpleasant, but it’s also pretty objectively the truth. Zinoman then implies that the reason there has never been another boom in horror comparable with the 1970s, is because once the conventions of the genre were established, the genre fed on itself (and only on itself) until stagnation. Zinoman attributes this decline to the fact that while Craven and Carpenter took their ideas of what was frightening from the works of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, younger filmmakers were getting their same conceptions exclusively from Craven and Carpenter.

If that last sentence raised your ire—if you’re ready to hurl lame insults like “elitist” and “portentous” at Zinoman—then maybe you won’t enjoy Shock Value. But you also might be the person who needs to read it the most.

INSIDIOUSly Engineered

I’m not the type of moviegoer who can “turn off their brain” for a big summer movie like Transformers 2 in order to give an otherwise bad film a pass. I’m not a snob, I would argue that I’m quite the opposite in that my primary interests are the “lowbrow” genres. But I am of the strong belief that a poorly made film cannot hide behind its genre affiliation, no matter how loud the insistence of the film’s defenders that I should: “relax, it’s only a movie.”

James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s Insidious is one of the few films I can think of that dodges this ongoing debate entirely. Here we have a film that demands to be taken on its own terms. If genre-savvy viewers (those who have seen more than a handful of fright films and were born before the Clinton administration) want to enjoy Insidious, they must acknowledge that the film is a composite. When I say composite, I don’t mean to imply that Insidious has anything in common with the mosaic filmmaking of Quentin Tarantino, or the pastiche/homage/rip-off tendencies of his imitators. What I mean is that with Insidious, Wan and Whannell (the writer/director duo behind Saw) have created a film that’s such a tight an assemblage of familiar spookhouse scares, that it never desires to be its own film. This does not mean that Insidious lacks merit as horror entertainment: if judged on the number of effective jump-scares alone, it would rank among the best ever.

Insidious is a loving and well-made “greatest hits” reel for the last century of horror cinema, but it completely fails if you try to scrutinize it as a film in and of itself. If that sounds like a conflicted statement, it’s meant to be. The promotional material included on the disc indicates that the duo set out to make just such a Frankenstein patchwork, by having them run down a veritable laundry list of famous moments they wanted to include.

For a film with a such a comparatively small budget, Insidious looks great, especially on Blu-ray. Wan gives a nice sense of geography with his camera movement and placement, and it’s the main reason that the scares work so well. The look may be effective, but the film borrows even its aesthetic from other films by using the “dank-but-slick” look popularized by the American remakes of Japanese films like The Ring and The Grudge.

Wan and Whannell fill their roadside-attraction of a movie to the brim with onscreen talent, but never deliver a single character that seems real or even dimensional to the point where they deserve names. There is The Dad (the talented Patrick Wilson), The Mom (the even more talented Rose Byrne), The Grandmother (Barbara Hershey whose inclusion I suspect is a nod to one of my own favorite films of this type, The Entity) and The Psychic (prolific character actor Lin Shaye). The film’s adherence to the haunted house/possession genre is so strict that I really don’t have to tell you much more beyond those character-types for you to synopsize the plot for yourself. All but one of these non-characters fit perfectly into the mechanism that is Insidious. The sore-thumb is Rose Byrne’s character, who spends the majority of the film screaming, crying and never really solving anything until her skeptic naysayer of a husband has to step up and save the day. The extreme degree to which her character is ineffectual would be insulting if everything else about the film weren’t so intentionally under-written.

Most of what I’d heard about the film mentioned how disappointing many people felt the ending was, as it does descend quite rapidly into preposterousness. Personally I was all for it. I enjoyed it just as much as the rest of the film and the scares never slow. I genuinely liked the look of the main demon (he’s like a red, humanoid and creepy Gonzo The Great) and felt that “The Further” sequences at the end were home to the very few original ideas in the movie.

So do I recommend you seek out Insidious? Yes, highly, but only if you’re looking for some scares…and soild ones at that. But be warned, these “free-standing” shocks don’t ask that you for one moment care about the connective tissue between them. As against my nature as it is to say: I had no problem enjoying Insidious “for what it is.” It does what it was engineered to do and it does it well.

Folk’d Up: Does "Wake Wood" Squander Its Proud Heritage?

Purchasing a movie without having first hand knowledge (or a trusted recommendation) is often called a “blind buy.” As I mature in taste and cynicism (and as my wallet begins to atrophy), blind buys are becoming a thing of the past on my part. It wasn’t the modest price tag of the Wake Wood blu-ray that encouraged me to make the buy (blindly), but instead a rather curious quote on the cover copy: “[Five Stars] An instant folk horror classic.” Folk horror? A contemporary film belonging to the very small subgenre of British horror film that includes such classics as The Wicker Man (1973) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)? Where do I sign up? Sadly, “truth in advertising” is a bit of an oxymoron.

Wake Wood is a movie that can’t commit. It has all the parts: two more than competent lead actors, foreboding (but beautiful) rustic Irish scenery, a mysterious town complete with pagan cult. But what it lacks is a writer and director who have any idea what kind of movie they want to make.

The setup is promising enough. Bereaved parents (Aidan Gillen, playing a much less smarmy guy than his characters on The Wire and Game of Thrones, and Eva Birthistle) move to a quiet suburb after their young daughter’s untimely death, but once there are presented with a way that they can have their daughter back for three more days. There are rules to the pagan ritual of course (there are always rules: don’t feed her after midnight, she doesn’t like bright light…wait wrong movie) chief among them is that the ritual can only be performed as long as the little girl has been dead for less than a year. I don’t think it’s meant to be a secret, but little Alice has been dead a year and a few days. If that constitutes a spoiler than Wake Wood features the worst poker faces in the history of cinema, because when asked how long their daughter has been dead Gillen and Birthistle’s characters begin their downward spiral into dimwitism, and they take the film with them.

In the film’s cinematic forbearers, when character motivations were hazy or the narrative relied heavily on dream logic, it was okay because those films didn’t insist upon the reality of their universe. In Wake Wood, when characters make inexplicable decisions, don’t communicate vital information to each other and are given incongruous and sketchy motivations, it’s just lazy filmmaking. Wake Wood wants the metered-pace of a seventies-flavored throwback in its first two acts and then switches to a slicker, more modern, stalk-and-kill for the last half hour. It just doesn’t work. The film feels like two separate movies cut together, one is a gory, gruesome and completely over the top evil kid on a rampage picture (which I am in no way opposed to). The other half is a slow-burn character-driven art-horror flick where the two protagonists are unlike-ably stupid (or aloof enough that we can’t justify their brain-dead decision making) and the evil pagan cult is actually fairly benign. Wake Wood may have been able to overcome this unholy union if its foundation were a stronger script, but alas.

What’s most frustrating about the film is not the promise it possessed in theory, but the charms it possesses in reality. There is a lot to like in Wake Wood. The sequences with the cult are enjoyable in that they recall older, better films. There is some genuinely pretty cinematography and it’s the first film since the reformation of Hammer Studios to carry at least a bit of the “feel” of classic British horror (although it’s not the best, that honor lies with the very good, but somewhat redundant Let Me In) but these glimmers of quality are overshadowed by the film’s noncommittal.

So “an instant folk horror classic” it is not, but an above-average
—if narrativly messy—addition to a Netflix queue as long as your expectations aren’t set too high.

I believe it goes without saying, but if you haven’t seen the weird and wonderful classic that is the original The Wicker Man,you really should.

Also, if you want to expand your “folk horror” repertoire I strongly recommend you seek out the R2 release of Blood on Satan’s Claw (it’s a bad title, but possibly my favorite Brit horror movie ever. Period).

Also, I’ve been pretty rough on this movie so if you want a second (kinder) opinion then my buddy and yours Johnny Boots has you covered over at Freddy in Space.

All those “time outs” coming back to haunt you: Bloody Birthday

Two years ago, I did a post about some of my favorite “killer kid” horror films, the only reason 1981’s Bloody Birthday wasn’t on that list is because I hadn’t seen it. In fact, I didn’t even know it was an entry in the esteemed “murderous child” sub-genre. But the fine folks at Severin films have allowed me to set my facts straight. While the label has been courting classier and more high-profile projects as of late(The Stunt Man and Alejandro Jodorwsky’s avant-garde art-cult masterpiece Santa Sangre), their most recent crop of releases aims to explain to viewers that Severin has not gotten out of the cult horror re-release game.

Three children (two boys, one girl), born at the same time, under the same evil astrological convergence, start killing on the eve of their tenth birthday. Classic. The strongest aspect of writer/director Ed Hunt’s Bloody Birthday, is that it quickly dispenses with the pretense that you are watching a proper film. Right away the malevolent tots are offing people, and the film’s breakneck pace only slows during its somewhat anti-climactic final moments. The film follows the prototypical (at the time) slasher formula of, if not upping the ante, at least varying the mode of death for each victim, leaving the viewer in awe of the trio of kids and their resourcefulness.

Where the weighty and European Who Can Kill a Child? exploits its pint-size antagonists for maximum dread value, Bloody Birthday takes the more American (i.e. instant-gratification) route and frontloads the film’s more shocking moments, leaning on the “oh no, the child is pointing a gun at me” effect one too many times, until the result is camp. The final product is far more guilty fun than it should be and, as usual, Severin gives the movie an HD transfer befitting a film 10x its notoriety and merit.

The protagonists never feel truly imperiled, but the gruesome fun of the first two acts (which include the dispatching of not one, but two pairs of young lovers, an 80s slasher staple) make up for the film’s shortcomings.

Rounding out the disc is a lively interview with the film’s final girl Lori Lethin, a lengthy but rambling audio interview with Ed Hunt (interesting, but is also prime background noise for when you’re doing something else) and a “Brief History of Slasher Films” featurette, which is enjoyable but won’t tell you anything new if you’re already an aficionado.

This is a recommended release, I can’t wait to pick up Severin’s other recent discs.

Pleased to Meet You: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn and It Came from Del Rio by Stephen Graham Jones

Last weekend, whilst visiting my native Long Island, I attended the Horror Writers Association’s Stoker Weekend. Stoker weekend is a semi-self-congratulatory, but fully awesome, writer’s convention and awards ceremony where I got to meet a bunch of people whose work I know and respect. A week later, looking back on the experience, I’ve realized that what I found just as satisfying as meeting those folks that I was familiar with was meeting writers whose work I had never given a chance. What follows are quick reviews of two such books, both of which I burned through in a couple of days (a sign of quality if I ever heard one).

I pride myself on having one finger on the pulse of horror at all times, so how the hell is this the first time I’ve picked up a book by Stephen Graham Jones? While many of the great horror writers seem preoccupied with either distancing themselves from their genre or legitimizing it, Jones jumps into the fray with a one two punch of high-literary sensibility and unapologetic pulp in It Came from Del Rio.

The story concerns a career criminal smuggler, Dodd, who is looking to retire after one last big job. Unfortunately for him the job is a doozey; one that leaves him genetically altered and concerns not only giant mutant rabbits, but radiation-sick chupacabras.

Del Rio is the kind of novel that sounds silly when summarized and puts the reader off guard with its title and lurid cover art (the subtitle is Part 1 of the Bunnyhead Chronicles, just in case the “It Came From” prefix didn’t do it for you), but pays big emotional and artistic dividends. The only corollary for Del Rio that I can think of is the work of Joe Lansdale (and not just because of the Texas connection). In fact, if you place this next to Lansdale’s The Drive-In, you could make a pretty good case that Jones is working in a brave new sub-genre: art-camp.

Both prosaically and structurally interesting (the book is broken down the middle for its two narrators, Dodd and his daughter Laurie) It Came from Del Rio is a quick read that sizzles with originality and genuine affection for the genre it is elevating to the level of high-art. I can’t wait to see what surprises the rest of Jones’ work holds.

Buy it right now from amazon!

I’ve seen both of Gillian Flynn’s books at my local bookstore, so when I was asked by one of the convention organizers if I knew her work I answered: “I’ve heard the name.” Not the best choice of words, because the next thing I know I’m being introduced to Flynn by said organizer as “a fan.” It was a little white lie on his part that was benign enough until Flynn asked me point-blank: “So you’ve read the books?” I can only assume that I turned all kinds of colors before confessing that “He may have overstated that ‘fan’ part a bit.”

It was only once I began reading Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, that I realized my embarrassment had yielded more than a funny story: I was indeed a fan.

A dark, neo-noir crime story that centers on a Chicago reporter’s return to her small hometown to investigate a series of murdered young girls, Sharp Objects is one of the most shocking and intelligent books I’ve read in a long, long time. To summarize is to bastardize, especially in a book where mystery is such an integral element to the work’s effectiveness, so I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

Our reporter protagonist, Camille Preaker, is a reformed cutter. She compulsively carves words into her skin and throughout the narrative is constantly reminded of her scars and the words they spell. It’s a haunting device that works far better than it would at the hands of a lesser writer. Camille’s scars, unsurprisingly, stem from her childhood. Her past, the death of her beloved little sister and her strained relationship with her mother, are pieces of backstory that don’t strictly serve as characterization, but directly inform the plot in such a way that it takes the text far beyond the typical series of red herrings and reversals usually found in crime fiction.

Flynn excels in creating supporting characters that at once evoke disgust and pity. There are times, especially when the reader is completely unsure who is the killer, where certain characters are either complete sociopaths, or absolute victims of circumstance. These constant subversions of expectation are a neat trick, and one that never outstays its welcome thanks to Flynn’s clean pacing and insightful prose.

During one of the weekend’s panel discussions, Flynn downplayed the feminist overtones of her work, and even cited instances where she was labeled misogynist (the bulk of the books most reprehensible characters are women). It is my opinion that feminism is not a dirty word, and I would even go further and say that this is a great feminist text, precisely because Flynn allows much of the ugliness to be inflicted by women. Sharp Objects is a story where the only ‘sane’ and ‘normal’ character is the one with the most emotional and physical scars. Camille is a woman who has truly felt the hurt that society ladles on women but has reconfigured societal expectation (her mother and sister are perverted into monstrosities by the extremes of this expectation) into fortitude and altruism.

Sorry if I got too pseudo-intellectual for a second, but the bottom line is that this book is excellent.

I highly recommend that you pick it up.