Haunted Houses and Hell Cops

I love a good haunted house yarn. Nowadays there’s this delicate balance you have to strike: you gotta give people what they’ve come to expect, but if you give ’em too much of it you’ll end up writing Just Another Haunted House Novel. Scott Thomas’s Kill Creek gives us what we want and happily dodges the usual pitfalls. If I told you why it’s so different (or more accurately: just the right amount of different), I’d be giving away too much.

It’s about Sam McGarver, a horror novelist, who’s invited to an allegedly haunted house as part of an internet stunt. Early on, Sam stumbles into the interview room and gazes over three other authors’ books which have been put out on display next to his own. Thomas uses the moment to flesh out his other characters, merely by describing their book covers and writing styles. That’s pretty clever. Soon after, the writers realize the house has some sort of power over them.

Kill Creek

I had expected something fluffier, along the lines of Peter Clines’ 14 (a novel I enjoyed very much), and because I wasn’t in the mood for lite horror at the moment, I held the story at arm’s length until it slowly but surely dissolved its facade. I would have finished the second half in one sitting if it hadn’t been for my antihistamine-induced drowsiness. It manages to take what could have been an extremely hokey element (“What’s behind the sloppily bricked wall inside the house?”) and turn it into a genuine lever for suspense.

Kill Creek sort of reminded me of Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, another debut novel which is less about a haunted house and more about a haunted object. At one point the main character sees the otherworldly entity that’s tormenting him, which (if memory serves me correctly) appears as an old man standing at the end of a hallway, legs fading out of the visible spectrum. The presence gives the hero a sinister smile as it dangles a razor blade from a necklace, the significance of which the reader won’t learn until later. I have 0% belief in the paranormal, but damn. Chills, my friend. Chills.

Sometime in the 90s, I saw Highway to Hell and absolutely adored it. More than twenty years later I finally ordered the Blu-Ray to see what my inner child has been yapping about for decades now. Kristy Swanson and Chad Lowe play a couple of eloping teenagers who happen upon a literal highway to hell. Satan, who takes a special liking to Swanson, agrees to let the teenagers return to the land of the living if they manage to win a car race.

The premise is all kinds of awesome, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired. They really could have tightened the movie up in editing, as tons of shots go on just a little too long. Still, you can’t accuse the movie of not being ambitious, even if “hell” is just a plain ol’ desert full of lame sign gags. (The roadside casino in hell is called Hoffa’s. Funny? Not really.) Satan’s right-hand man is The Hell Cop, a surprisingly effective villain whose handcuffs are severed zombie hands which are linked by chain. A young Ben Stiller and three of his family members make cameos, while Gilbert Gottfried plays Adolf Hitler. Like the sign gags, the cameos aren’t as funny as they want to be, but they’re amusing nonetheless.

My biggest complaint is probably asking too much of a 90s B movie: I would have preferred it if they explained the setting more, which very spottily incorporates Greek mythology. Like, what’s the hierarchy in this version of hell? What are the rules? Why are biker gangs allowed to roam at will, mingling with Cleopatra and hex-protected cage dancers, while many others are ground up and used as road pavement? And what, exactly, happens when people “die” in hell? Do they go to… hell?

Doesn’t matter. I can’t dislike this movie, even if it is a little slower than I remembered.

Two more movies I enjoyed tremendously this week: The Killing of Sacred Deer and Raw. Neither one of these movies are what I would call crowd pleasers, but that’s what makes ’em special. Both are insidiously funny and pleasantly disturbing in entirely different ways. Raw will definitely make some viewers gag, and the soundtrack is killer (I’m listening to it right now, in fact).

Steer clear of Sacred Deer if you weren’t a fan of The Lobster, which was also directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. His movies seem to be abrasive to some. What I loved about his newest film is it seems to really take its time, but in retrospect it goes from absurd to flat-out insane pretty quickly.

In case you didn’t see my last post, Corpus Evil has been postponed. I thought it would be on sale by April 1st, but it looks like that’s around the time beta readers will get it, starting with my girlfriend. It’s pretty much as polished as I can get it without reader input, I just want to go through it a few more times and hopefully uncover some more mistakes.

I’ve finally started working on my next novel. I’m having trouble finding the tone, but other aspects are working out nicely.

Cold Moons and Back-Alley Abortions

I’ve got some bad news which is probably good news in the long run: I’m pushing back the release date for Corpus Evil. There are a hundred reasons for doing this, but the best reason is it’s simply going to be a lot better. I think I was also on the road to a nervous breakdown.

So consider the bevy of memorable characters Michael McDowell has introduced to me so far: the dimwitted Dean Howell, whose rifle explodes in his face shortly before he’s shipped off to The Vietnam War; he somehow becomes a dreadful presence in The Amulet even though he spends the entire novel in a coma, his face wrapped in bandages. His wife Sarah, who was too good for Dean to begin with, has to suffer the wrath of her lazy, gluttonous mother-in-law, Jo Howell. Jo blames everyone but herself for what has happened to Dean and it just so happens she has the means of making them pay.

Cold Moon Over Babylon introduced Jerry and Margaret Larkin, downtrodden siblings who were raised by their tired grandmother after their parents happened upon a sack of rattlesnakes. The family dynamics here feel like McDowell Lite, as if he were practicing for the larger and much more endearing cast of characters he would put on parade in The Elementals, which includes the comically cynical Luker McCray and his mischievous teenage daughter, India; I especially enjoyed the moments in which India’s foul-mouthed nature conflicted with her alcoholic grandmother, Big Barbara McCray, a southern aristocrat who dazzlingly skims the surface of Predictable Stereotype.

Gilded Needles

So it was inevitable I would read Gilded Needles this week, having no idea who or what McDowell would introduce next. (Summaries be damned, I’ve been going into his stories blind ever since I read the first one.) How do you top the Howells and the McCrays? How could it possibly get any better?

For the first time in my experience, McDowell moves his setting out of Alabama and into the dark, depressing streets of 1800s New York. Opium dens. Whorehouses. Highly illegal abortion operations. It’s the characters who live in this fully realized squalor who become the morally ambiguous heroes of Gilded Needles. The story pits Black Lena Shanks against Judge James Stallworth, the latter of whom has sentenced three of Lena’s family members to death. In retaliation, Lena’s family of misfits send the judge and his family invitations to their own funerals.

The supernatural elements are gone, but the gleeful absurdity of The Amulet kind of returns as the two families square off. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as fun as The Elementals, but it’s pretty damn close and it’s a helluva lot darker. There’s something especially satisfying about the huge cast of ruthless characters and how far they’ll go to exact their revenge on people who simply disliked them because they weren’t born into the same social class. Why so many of McDowell’s books stayed out of print for so long, I’ll never know, but let’s hope they’re here to stay.

Because I read and unexpectedly enjoyed Michael Crichton’s Sphere last week, I thought I’d check out the movie which was based on it. This was a mistake. I can’t remember the last time I watched such a dull, mediocre movie. I find it amazing that an actress as talented as Sharon Stone can appear in movies like this and appear to be both bored and incompetent. Samuel L. Jackson, who’s almost always interesting, also disappoints.

How do you make a story about a giant squid boring? By reducing the squid’s role almost entirely, that’s how. I’m sure it was probably because of budgetary reasons, but the film supposedly cost around $80 million, long before that kind of budget was the norm, so it’s a bit of a head-scratcher that it should feel so cheap and small. This is The Abyss re-imagined without any of the awe, excitement, or groundbreaking special effects.

Freaked (1993)

Ricky Coogan

I usually don’t like movies which try this hard to be funny, but the jokes here are less like their lazy ancestors in a Not Another ______ Movie and more like the groaners a dorky dad would tell. It also doesn’t hurt that the people telling these jokes are kind of charming. You’ve got Mr. T playing the bearded lady, Keanu Reeves as the wolfman, and Bobcat Goldthwait as a sock puppet with a human body. Why not?

The creature effects are unbelievable for a film which was, for all intents and purposes, a straight-to-video flick; I’m not even sure I knew it existed until it quietly appeared on Cinemax one night in the mid-90s. Screaming Mad George is probably the king of special effects for movies like this, which is why I’m disappointed his last major credit is 2003’s Beyond Re-Animator. Like I said when I featured Society: his films aren’t always great, but they’re almost always great to look at. Freaked is no exception.

Hammer time freaks

Alex Winter plays Ricky Coogan, a narcissistic movie star who signs on as the spokesman for an evil corporation which deals in toxic fertilizer. He and his best friend fly down to South America (for reasons which are escaping me at the moment) and end up getting detoured by a sideshow attraction operated by Randy Quaid. It turns out Quaid is using the evil corporation’s fertilizer to transform unsuspecting victims into freaks of nature. He turns Coogan into a hideous monster and turns his best friend into one-half of conjoined twins—the other half of which can’t stand his guts.

When Randy Quaid was normal

The movie is gross, in a Garbage Pail Kids kind of way, and the violence is cartoonish enough not to push its PG-13 rating. There are things to dislike about Freaked, but every bit of it is overshadowed by the aforementioned special effects and well-meaning vibe of it all.

The jokes don’t always land, but it’s fast paced and fun. I have no complaints.

Doomed Boy Scouts and Alien Objects

Here’s everything I knew about Nick Cutter’s The Troop when I started it: it was a horror novel which people seemed to like. That’s pretty much it.

I thought it was going to be about a viral outbreak and, without giving too much away, it kind of is, but it’s more parasitic in nature… and kind of gross, too. In other words, it was right up my alley. It was a bit of a stretch to believe such a thing could find itself on the same island as a character like Shelley (this little fucker deserves a cell next door to Hannibal Lecter), but it was worth suspending my disbelief. If, like me, you had trouble enjoying Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, this is a much better version of that story.

The Troop

Growing up, I was inexplicably drawn to the cover of Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee’s Rama Revealed when I saw it sitting on the shelf of a book store one day. When I realized it was a sequel, I convinced my mother to order the first in the series, Rendezvous with Rama, at Steve’s Sundry (R.I.P.). The rest is history: I annihilated the series and I’ve been a fan of Clarke and science fiction ever since. I even loved the sequels as a kid (though I’ve never been able to get into them as an adult) and I’ve been forever chasing the high that first book gave me.

I love superstructures and I love big science fiction. The harder the better. I’m increasingly turned off by the self-aware geek-chic SF of today, which seems to be suffocated by pop cultural references and nostalgia. I want academic characters talking about real world theories and all the known unknowns and unknown unknowns, and everything in between.

Sphere

Over the years, the itch has been scratched here and there. Asimov’s Foundation (though I somehow never read beyond the first book) did the trick. Larry Niven’s Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers did okay, too (let’s just pretend the series ended there). More recently and unexpectedly, however, Michael Crichton’s Sphere kicked all kinds of ass for me, mostly because I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Crichton’s work… also because I have no idea what possessed me to read it. It’s kind of like Rendezvous with Rama if it had been written by James Cameron.

I’ll take it.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

Optic nerve extraction

I put S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk near the top of my list for the best movies of 2015, which was already the best year for twenty-first century movies. If I were to go back and revise that list, I suspect the film would rank a little higher. As if to prove he’s no fluke, Zahler has made Brawl in Cell Block 99, a movie which I enjoyed even more than Tomahawk.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is pure, unabashed pulp, the furthest you can get from the increasingly predictable Oscar bait that’s been plaguing awards seasons since time immemorial. In the opening scene we see Vince Vaughn’s towering figure rise from the cab of a tow truck, the back of his bare head adorned with a crucifix tattoo. His character’s name is Bradley, never Brad, and anger undulates beneath the surface of his skin—we can see him struggling not to explode every second he’s on the screen. He’s a surprisingly smart and moral guy for his criminal underpinnings, but the world seems like it’s out to get him. He does the best he can do with shit situations which ambush him on a daily basis.

The same day the recovering alcoholic loses his job, he discovers his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) has been having an affair. He calmly waits for her to leave the scene and proceeds to dismantle her car with his bare hands. A man who shoves his fist through the headlight of a vehicle to rip its wiring out like the guts of a fish is a man who is possessed. Vaughn is 100% believable in the role, so much so it’s hard to believe this is the same guy from Swingers.

Jesus Christ your head

Once he has thoroughly murdered the car, Bradley walks inside and politely tells his wife he’s getting back into the drug dealing business. And that’s what ultimately leads to his incarceration, which will have him behind bars during his daughter’s birth. Bradley takes his medicine without complaint, but the people he’s pissed off are about to concoct one of the most heinous revenge plots ever seen.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not for the faint of heart. No single thing which happens in it is quite as gory or gruesome as that infamous scene in Bone Tomahawk, but as a whole the movie might just be a bit more shocking. I can think of no other film I want to see more than the director’s next one, which will take a portion of this cast and add Mel Gibson to the mix. The name of that film is allegedly Dragged Across Concrete, which is fitting if it’s anything like this.

Goddamn, what a breath of fresh air.

33 days until Corpus Evil releases!

My eyes are swollen, my head is light, and I feel like I’m being waterboarded with mucus.

Allergies, man. Who needs ’em?

Let’s get the promotional junk out of the way: We’re about a month away from the release of Corpus Evil. Mark your calendars. It’s gonna scare your tits off.

The Amulet

Considering my allergies have whooped my ass to the point of lethargy, I would rather talk about Michael McDowell’s The Amulet, one of the most entertaining—and absurd—pieces of horror I’ve ever read. His later novel The Elementals seems to crop up on Amazon every time I browse the fiction section, so it’s satisfying to see such an underrated writer trending so many years after his death. I couldn’t tell you which of the two books I enjoyed more. I expect to burn through the rest of his stuff before the end of the year.

Another book I enjoyed recently is Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. For years I’ve avoided it based on its reputation. I don’t care how fucked up a story is as long as it’s fun (read: not mean), but joyless stories which participate in debauchery for the sake of being extreme tend to bore me. Mercifully, The Girl Next Door doesn’t belong in the extreme category. Yes, what happens to the titular character is certainly extreme, but it’s not without purpose and it counterbalances Ketchum’s sentimentality for the time and place. It’s an honest, beautifully written story about a horrific act, and it doesn’t use “evil” as a lazy, catch-all excuse for why bad things happen to undeserving people.

I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I reeled from a book, not wanting to go any further. And when you get to that point (you’ll know which part I’m talking about), you’ll probably discover you can’t put it down, either. That’s some powerful stuff.

Hellraiser Judgment, Skull Island, and The Cloverfield Paradox

Yeah, I’m still alive. Work has been busier than it’s been in ages, my girlfriend and I are remodeling our kitchen (extensively), and I’m still working on Corpus Evil. I haven’t forgotten the blog, it’s just low on my list of priorities at the moment, which sucks because I’d rather be doing this than most things.

So I saw Hellraiser Judgment today. I only fell asleep once.

The prologue is a promising ten minutes of gore-filled debauchery. Maybe it’s because the bar was set so low by the other direct-to-video sequels (I believe there were, like, a thousand of them), but it felt relatively fresh for a franchise that was always better in its idea department than in execution. I even began to think I was in for a fun stupid movie as opposed to a plain ol’ stupid movie.

My first problem (of many) is the same problem I had with the earlier sequels: Pinhead gets a little too much dialogue. (Come to think of it, that was one of my problems with Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels, which I kind of suspect was ghostwritten by someone else.) I don’t care what makes Pinhead tick because I just don’t want that particular veil of mystery lifted. It’s the same reason I’ve never read the Hannibal prequel: some villains are much more interesting without a backstory and monologues. Pinhead has become so pedestrian as of late.

Thankfully there’s a new villain who retains his mystique and his name is The Auditor. Like a cross between Yul Brynner’s role in Westworld and the bad guy from Highway to Hell, he’s a formidable screen presence played by an actor who’s far better than any of the other leads. His face covered with scars and sunglasses as black as welding goggles, he bores intimidation directly into the soul of any mortal foolish enough to cross his path… okay, maybe I’m laying it on a little thick, but trust me: the first ten minutes of Judgment are a blast.

It’s the rest of the movie that stinks to high hell.

If a CSI spin-off is your idea of a good time, you might like Judgment. Hopeful and/or desperate fans of the franchise, on the other hand, are going to be especially disappointed. I’m still wondering why it needed to be a Hellraiser movie in the first place. Like the more recent sequels, it feels like Pinhead was shoved in there just to get tortured fans to shell out money to see it. Unlike the recent sequels, it feels like the supplemental stuff could have made for a decent movie had they been given room to breathe.

I saw Kong: Skull Island and The Cloverfield Paradox, too. Skull Island has gotta be one of the best dumb blockbusters ever made—and believe me: it’s really dumb, going so far as to incorporate Hollow Earth Theory, the proponents of which could even make Flat Earthers cringe. Thankfully, I’m a sucker for giant monster movies (Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake notwithstanding). My brain is telling me not to like this movie, but it’s downright irresistible, even as one helicopter pilot after another repeatedly flies into Kong’s arm reach instead of firing their heavy weaponry from a safe altitude and distance.

The Cloverfield Paradox, on the other hand, sucked almost as bad as Hellraiser Judgment. JJ should really lay off the parallel dimension stuff, which kind of explains key events of the first two films at the expense of failing to explain any of the key events in this film. I fell asleep during this one as well.

I’m getting old, y’all.