trade yer coffin

trade yer coffinTrade Yer Coffin for a Gun by Mer Whinery is one truly weird Western. It reads like a mash up of From Dusk Till Dawn, High Plains Drifter, and Zombie–this is a big, bold, B movie of a book that revels in its inspirations. Let’s face it: any tale that brings in references to Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci right from the start is going for a certain tone. And it achieves it.

A Wild and Witchy West

The story follows Jubilee “Sugar” Bava, her twin brother Cutter, and their elder brother Micah–mercenary gunslingers collectively known as The Haints. Orphaned and driven out of their home town of Coffin Mills by corrupt officials, the trio are lured back to battle a supernatural threat to the town’s children. Of course, the opportunity for bloody revenge has something to do with it, too.

Did I mention that Sugar Bava is also the Witch of Fulci Holler? And that there are not one, but two monstrous horrors to defeat? And that another witch shows up to help?

Over the top is an understatement. Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun has vampires, witches, ghouls, zombies, prostitutes, gunslingers, necrophilia, black magic, white magic, Satanism, and a little Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. There is so much packed into Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun that a lot of potentially interesting details get pushed to the side from sheer lack of space. Micah’s tragic marriage, one monster’s connection to another, Sugar’s need to drink blood–all are dropped into the story without context. They left me wondering, and wishing for an explanation.

Riders of the Purple Prose

Whinery does a solid job of evoking the bleak, haunted North Texas where Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun is set, describing scenes in cinematic detail. All his characters speak in a thick television Western dialect, where guns are irons and the sheriff is the law, adding nicely to the atmosphere. Everywhere, his use of language is enthusiastic, and his prose incredibly, abundantly purple. For example: “It ventured a step further toward Sugar, reaching out an emaciated, sore-riddled arm, a root-like latticework of black veins squirming beneath the cemetery of its skin.” Or,  “Its corrugated surface glistened with an oozing pink slime and was lit from within by a sinister orange fairy fire, phantoms and forms fluttering clumsily inside the nimbus of the illumination.”

Despite the overall overstatement, there are some quieter, finely tuned descriptions among all the gore: “The sort of quiet that came before carefully chosen words”, and “The town of Coffin Mills went bad that day, and never knew the Grace of God again.”

However, the sloppy editing throughout the book interferes with the raucous action and undermines the atmosphere-building. For example, the first chapter heading promises a cold October night, but twice in the following pages we are told it is spring. Sugar Bava rides a pure white mare that several pages later has a chestnut mane. And littered throughout are overlooked typos that make the characters’ dialect harder to read than it should be.

Trade Yer Coffin for a Copy

After all is said and done, Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun is an entertaining page-turner for those with a taste for horror and gleefully excessive  gore. I don’t know how well it would stand up to a second reading, but the first time through was good, old-fashioned, gross-out fun.

they remain

 

they remain
Is this really happening?

They Remain is an unusual horror movie in that it is not actually horrific. Instead it is creepy, and quiet, and very, very weird. Considering it’s source material is Laird Barron’s short story “–30–”, I’d be disappointed if it weren’t.  This is a slow, meandering movie that seems to exist outside of time. Rather than a story of otherworldly monsters and rites, They Remain gives us barely any story at all. What we witness instead is the slow decay of two people left alone for too long.

The Plot Thickens

Two scientists have been assigned to search for…something…in an area deep in woodlands where a murderous cult was once active. Rebecca Henderson as Jessica is a cool and methodical biologist, while William Jackson Harper as Keith is a more wary and guarded field researcher . They have been sent into the wilds by their unnamed company on a three month-long mission. What they are hoping to find is never made clear, although it is tied to the cult’s decades-old activities.

The cult’s murders were investigated decades earlier, but Jessica hints that much of what they did is still unknown. Their limited outside contact taunts them with rumors of other terrible things that have happened in these woods more recently. They find evidence that terrible things may have been going on here for centuries. Nothing is definite. All their tests and data cannot confirm anything. They run experiments, but their findings lead nowhere.

they remain
Bad choices

As the days drag on the scientists’ sense of isolation becomes suggestive and overpowering. Keith and Jessica begin to feed each other’s suspicions and fears. They see things, hear, things, dream things that cannot be rationally explained. They come to believe what they see, hear, and dream–but are their perceptions flashbacks or hallucinations?

Finally, after watching the characters degrade under the weight of uncertainty, They Remain explodes in violence and a terrible sense of having made the wrong choices. It is a disturbing note to end on–there are no explanations, let alone answers. We, and the characters, are as lost as when we started.

How? What? Why?
they remain
The nature of things

They Remain is beautiful to look at. Much of the running time is filled with close shots of the sky and trees and mossy, fallen trunks, and of Keith staring into the distance as he sits alone in the forest. The events take place from September to November, so we get to watch the leaves turn.

The connected white geodomes Keith and Jessica live and work in  stand in sterile contrast to the otherwise natural setting. But bits of the natural world also turn up out of place, from wasps and swarming ants to flowers suddenly blooming. The sense of vague but growing unease is deepened with dreamy, slightly discordant background music and clipped, brittle, sometimes overly formal dialogue. The effect is one of distance. Everything is presented at a remove. We are not allowed to connect with the characters or their experiences. If they reach any conclusions, we are not privy to them.

What Remains

They Remain is undeniably offbeat, and off putting. The bleak mood it produces reminds me very much of Event Horizon, but without the grandeur or horror elements. Slowly growing madness and obscure cosmic influences are not easy to portray on film,  but I think writer/director Philip Gelatt’s decision to keep the plot, cast, and effects to a minimum for the most part succeeds. In the end I enjoyed it, and am still thinking about it, but I can’t say I liked it. They Remain is not a great movie, but a good enough one–the kind you watch simply to be weirded out.

cargo

 

cargo
Into the unknown

Cargo begins with so much potential. A zombie plague. A family struggling to survive. The wilds of rural Australia. A top-notch cast to bring it to life. It packs a real emotional punch inside a small story. And then…it loses momentum and falls back on several common stereotypes and sentiment to fill in the gaps. Cargo is a good movie, but it should have been better.

Some small spoilers ahead

Set in an Australia ravaged by a zombie-creating virus, Andy, Kay, and their infant daughter Rosie, are struggling to find a safe haven from the end of the world. When Kay is attacked and infected they must change their plans to get her help. But she turns, attacks, and infects Andy before they find any, and he is left alone to save Rosie before he also turns into the undead.

cargo
Family is where you find it

Martin Freeman is his sincere, exceptional self as Andy, a man out of his element and trying to keep his family alive. Suzie Porter is a great match as his wife Kay, strong and determined and brave in the face of inevitable disaster. And newcomer Simone Landers is completely convincing as Thoomi, the young Aboriginal girl trying desperately to save her own father before she joins up with Andy and Rosie.

The small cast is filled out by Bruce R. Carter and Natasha Wanganeen as Thoomi’s parents, and David Gulpilil as the tribal elder Daku–the Clever Man. Kris McQuade, Anthony Hayes and Caren Pistorius are other struggling survivors.

Cargo is all about family

Cargo is not actually scary–the effect it produces is more unsettling and sad, with some very striking monster reveals. But as an addition to the already-loaded zombie genre it works, and works pretty well.

Some of the strongest scenes in the movie are the early ones between Andy and his wife, as they struggle to make increasingly urgent life and death decisions, first as healthy humans and then as infected pre-zombies. The later development of a family bond between Andy and Thoomi is also surprisingly touching and believable, if at times throwing a heartbreaking amount of emotional weight onto the child.

cargo
Other monsters

Cargo also chooses to touch on major social issues like racism, funding cuts to resources in aboriginal areas, and environmental concerns about fracking. Given the characters involved, it makes sense to be aware of the issues even if they are not dealt with in depth. There is, after all, a zombie apocalypse going on.

However, the other side of acknowledging the issues is turning them into cliched plot devices. The racist, survivalist gas-line worker and the Aborigines shown as noble savages are reduced to stereotypes, and cheapen an otherwise compelling plot.

And another thing…

Unfortunately, with such a small cast and limited focus, Cargo’s 105 minutes prove too long to spend on telling the story. In between genuine character development and forward plot motion, the pacing lags. There are too many long shots of Andy trudging through the outback with his daughter strapped to his back and slow-motion scenes of Aboriginal warriors destroying the undead. While the scenery is beautiful, less of would have been enough.

But there are also some wonderful details.

The government-issue medical kits are a great, grim touch, with their basic fact sheet, wristband timer, mouthguard, cuffs, and spring-loaded spike for ending it all. The variations on the old zombie theme are bizarre and intriguing, with the copious, sticky pus and the need to hibernate in the dark. And the carrot and stick trick is brilliant, if a bit overwrought at the end.

Carrying on

The real strength of Cargo is the intimate drama of it, and the 2013 short Cargo was based on was as tightly put together as anyone could wish. Stretching it to feature length required some padding and diluted the raw power of a man’s determination to save his child. In the end Cargo is a movie that, while beautifully made and touchingly acted, ends up being less than it should be because it thought it needed to be more.

figures unseen

figures UnseenFigures Unseen: Selected Stories, the latest collection by Steve Rasnic Tem, is a master-class in weird fiction. The circumstances in these thirty five stories are disturbingly familiar, the settings uncomfortably domestic. Tem’s flawed and damaged characters struggle to hold on to some semblance of normalcy as their lives come apart. They become monsters, but they do not mean to. They misunderstand. They make poor choices. They fail each other the way we all do, at some point. It’s no surprise that reading Tem’s work in Figures Unseen is in many ways like coming home.

***

Steve Rasnic Tem knows his craft. He has published seven novels and more than four hundred short stories over his decades-long career. With his late wife, Melanie Tem, he wrote Yours to Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing.

His language is beautiful, tactile and vivid, shot through with descriptions like ”She bought Julie a doll on her way to the airport, a floppy thing with huge, aimless eyes” and “rising with the orderly progress of the flames, set free into air and light, and they all, all of them stopped their lives that day to watch”.

Yet there is so much ugliness happening inside the beautiful descriptions. Human weaknesses and failings. Selfishness. Greed. Fear. Tem can twist a strange occurrence into a catastrophe with a single well-turned phrase, to peel back the skin of normal conduct and reveal the worms beneath it: “He felt sorry for her, but he also felt scared for himself. The woman he had loved had been gone for years, and now he was left with this. He wasn’t a good enough person to handle something he hadn’t signed up for.”

***

I personally find his shorter works sharper and more visceral than his longer ones. These selections in particular stand out for me:

“City Fishing”, is a bizarre coming-of-age tale reminiscent of both Dante’s Inferno and classic zombie fare.

“Houses Creaking in the Wind” provides a grim, brief summary of a man who has lost his wife and children, and may be dead himself.

“An Ending” is a particularly nasty piece about a helpless, bedridden couple dependent on their daughter for their care.

“Little Cruelties” chronicles the disintegration of a man whose attempts to control his wife and son are demonstrated through the rationalized, titular cruelties.

***
Steve Rasnic Tem
Steve Rasnic Tem

Tem also explores some of the more traditional monsters. But in his hands, what is monstrous is the responses to them, the attempts to normalize them, the desire to make them fit into a rational world or to bend the world to fit them.

Two stories here can be identified as vampire tales: “The Men and Women of Rivendale”, and “Vintage Domestic”. Neither fits easily among the common tropes. “Rivendale” offers vampirism as both an inherited disease and a cure for boredom, while “Vintage” phrases it as a desperately private family matter.

“Miri” and “Preparations for the Game” can be called ghost stories, but their hauntings are as much conscience as spirit. The protagonist in “Miri” left part of himself behind when he left his troubled girlfriend, while the main character of “Preparations” is trapped in a constant replay of his own sins.

His werewolf story, “Grandfather Wolf”, places the predator within the context of family resemblances, responsibilities, and love, without ever dipping into sentimentality.

Tem also includes a single Lovecraftian piece, “Between the Pilings”, sad and skewed and effective. In it, Innsmouth becomes a crumbling seaside resort town where the narrator is driven to recapture a lost part of  his youth.

***

The unifying theme of Steve Rasnic Tem’s Figures Unseen is, ultimately, the binding power of the family. These stories are driven by the pain of what fathers, mothers, siblings, and friends do to each other, and for each other. It makes Figures Unseen intimate, disturbing, and hard to forget–because when we strip away the weird and supernatural trappings, we are still left with ourselves.